Published Jul 17, 2014

Does Iowa have any beginning farmers?

By Sally Worley

According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, beginning farmers are on the decline, from 38% of the principal operators in 1982 to 26% in 2007. This trend continued in the 2012 Ag Census, when the number of beginning farmers dropped another 20% in just five years.The 2012 Ag Census reports that 62% of farmers are 55 or older, and the average principal farmer age is 58.3 years, up 2% from the average farmer age in 2007. In addition, 56% of farmland is owned by people over the age of 65, with 30% of farmland owned by those over 75.

However, Iowa ranks 6th for most beginning farmers in the nation. Practical Farmers’ membership recognizes the need for a large group of well-rounded beginners to continue and improve agriculture in Iowa. Because of this, we have created robust programming for beginning farmers. Practical Farmers is experiencing a huge surge in beginning and aspiring farmers in our network as a result. Our network has grown to more than 1,500 beginning farmers in Iowa alone, as well as 300 beginning farmers outside of Iowa. Here is some information we have collected on these beginners. Not only is this information quite interesting, it helps us develop programs that suit their needs.

  • Thirty percent in our beginning farmer network are not yet farming but want to start farming within the next three years.
  • Of those already farming, most common enterprises are: vegetables (34%), hay (28%), fruits (23%), corn (20%), beef cattle (19%), herbs and flowers (19%), soybeans (18%), poultry for eggs (18%), bees/honey (14%), poultry for meat (13%), swine (11%) and small grains (11%).
  • Age range of beginning farmers in Practical Farmers’ membership is 18 to 84 with an average age of 43, and most common age of 27.
  • Of those who completed our recent beginning farmer survey, 55 percent do not have a farm business plan with an annual income forecast and a budget of expenses.
  • Fifty-five percent are starting a new farming business, 32% hope to continue their family farm but lack a succession plan, and 12% have succession plans. Forty percent have or will either inherit or purchase farmland from family, and 60% have not engaged in family land transfer. Sixty percent need better access to farmland to rent or purchase.
  • Beginning farmers in the Practical Farmers network farm very small parcels measured in square feet up to several thousand acres with their families, with average farm size of 123 acres.
  • According to the Practical Farmers survey, beginning farmers’ goals include: feeding the community healthful food, creating profitable businesses, stewarding the land, creating a good quality of life, successfully transitioning the family farm to the next generation, implementing viable business plans, accessing farmland, and more.
  • Beginning farmers report they would most like Practical Farmers’ help with: production efficiency to produce a profit; finding land and competing with larger farms; marketing; market assessment; increasing customers; capital infrastructure improvements; business plan development; codes and regulations; pricing their products; and financial recordkeeping.