Commentary: Who’s going to fill their shoes?

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Editor's note: The following commentary was written by Nathan Smith, Field Editor for the Texas Farm Bureau and was originally posted at the Texas Agriculture Talks website.

I was driving through West Texas recently and George Jones’ ballad, “Who’s Going to Fill Their Shoes” came on the radio. I am a big fan of “the possum” and have heard this song dozens of times, but driving through the heart of Texas cotton country, it struck me a little differently.

The song talks about the pioneers of country music and the legacy they will leave. The hook comes when Jones asks, who will take their place?

Looking out at the setting sun over blooming cotton and shelled corn fields, I couldn’t help but wonder the same thing about Texas farmers.

Who is going to take their place? Maybe more importantly, how will they be replaced?

Most Texans are fortunate enough to have never had to ask where they will find their next meal. Grocery store shelves overflow with bounty and variety.

So what?

Everything on those shelves got started in a field or pasture by some farmer or rancher. It passed through many hands to get to a shelf, but without a willing grower, it wouldn’t be there.

Consider the following information and let your mind wander as mine did.

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the average American farmer was 57.1 years old–nearly 17 years older than the average American worker.

By the USDA’s calculations, the rapidly increasing age of American farmers is no short-lived trend. And no one is rushing to replace farmers who pass away or retire.

According to statistics, farmers and ranchers are twice as likely than other professions to work past 65 years of age.

Yes, farming is noble, it’s rewarding–but it’s still hard work. It can also be dangerous and top it all off with heavy risks and capital-intensive start-up costs.

So where have all the farmers gone?

Most operations in Texas are handed down from one generation to the next. As the baby boomer generation retires, they leave children drawn to urban centers and promise of economic stability. They’ve largely said goodbye to the farm and its roots.

That leaves the best agricultural production areas and states with the highest concentration of aging adults.

What does an industry with fewer and older farmers look like? Are the signs pointing to the end of the family operator?

My gut tells me no. Still, the problem is startling.

Farming has always been a family endeavor. It’s true, we likely will see fewer large operations held together by a single family, but smaller farming families have the chance to see additional income through a smaller operation.

Farmers and ranchers are experts at overcoming adversity and most meet great hurdles at a young age. Try to keep a young man or woman with a passion for farming out of the field. You won’t find it so easy.

There are programs and grants available, but mostly they only offer supplemental assistance. The programs might offer some incentive, but they aren’t fixing the problem.

The answer to the question, who’s going to fill their shoes, is a tough one. I hope Texas and America has that answer soon.

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Wisconsin  |  August, 24, 2012 at 01:40 PM

Where have all the farmers gone? The short answer is another question. Are they even being born anymore?

NewYork  |  August, 28, 2012 at 12:04 PM

Ya gotta love it cause the money sure isn't why we do it. I think they'll figure a way to feed everyone but a lot of people sure don't want to work for it. Sad part is a lot of people don't even know where their food comes from.

WI  |  August, 28, 2012 at 02:42 PM

It might help if we didn't all complain so much, and instead focus on the positives.

Wisconsin  |  August, 28, 2012 at 08:12 PM

Very true Gwen! Ya gotta love it! But it isn't the money because if it was, welfare wouldn't be nearly as popular as it is. But unfortunately welfare does pay better then milking cows and you can continue to screw up your life beyond all recognition and still have time for fun. Cheryl, you are correct. We are being far too negative. But what does John Q. Public ever hear about farming? He hears that the work is hard and the hours are long. He hears about the markets and how the farmer only receives pennies. Mr. Public hears about the destruction of the earth, abuse of animals, chemicals and drugs in his food, illegal immigrant labor, and of course lots of government subsidies. Who tells him these things? None other then those who call themselves friends of the farmer. And entire cadre of politicians, talking heads in the media, newspaper editors, and farm groups who's only reason for existence is to tell everyone that farmers never have a good day. And believe it or not,..... people listened! What of those who spend their day scouring the greatest technical achievement known to man, the internet. And they say the farmer should be on the north end of a southbound team of oxen half of the day. I should write a book about this. Anyone want to help?

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