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Beginning Farmers and Ranchers at a Glance

Posted by Mary Ahearn, Farm and Rural Household Well-Being Branch, Economic Research Service in Food and Nutrition Farming Research and Science
Feb 21, 2017

USDA programs have targeted assistance to beginning farmers and ranchers since the 1992 Agricultural Credit Improvement Act. Farms or ranches are considered “beginning” if the operators have managed them for 10 years or less. The Economic Research Service has looked at the trend in numbers of beginning farmers and ranchers in recent decades and examined some key characteristics that distinguish them from established farms using the Census of Agriculture and the Agricultural Resource Management Survey. Taken every five years, the Census provides the only source of uniform, comprehensive and impartial agricultural data for every county in the nation.

For more than two decades, the share of farms operated by beginning farmers has been in decline.  Beginning farms and ranches accounted for 22 percent of the nation’s 2 million family farms and ranches in 2011 – down from about 38 percent in 1982. Consistent with this trend, the average age of principal farm operators in the United States has risen in that period, from 50 to 58.

As beginning farms are smaller on average than established farms, they account for only 10 percent of production on family farms. Beginning farmers often report that their biggest challenge in getting started in farming is access to enough capital and farmland to operate at a size capable of earning a sufficient profit. Not surprisingly, the households of beginning farm operators have lower farm and nonfarm net worth than the households of established farms.

While most beginning farms include some operator-owned land, they are more likely than established farms to have only rented land. For U.S. farmers in general, the most common way to have acquired “owned land” for their operation is to have purchased it from a nonrelative. But established farms of all size classes are more likely than beginning farms to have inherited or purchased their owned land from relatives.

Established farms of all sizes are more likely to inherit or purchase land from a relative.
Established farms of all sizes are more likely to inherit or purchase land from a relative.

Most U.S. farm households—whether beginning or established—have for decades received a majority of their household income from off-farm sources.  For beginning farm households, average farm income is less than that for established farm households, but their off-farm income is higher on average than that of established farm households. This difference holds, regardless of farm size.

Households operating beginning farms have higher average off-farm income and lower average farm income, at every farm size.
Households operating beginning farms have higher average off-farm income and lower average farm income, at every farm size.

Operators and spouses on beginning farms are even more likely than their counterparts on established farms to work at off-farm jobs and businesses, and are also more likely to have a college degree. Off-farm income can enable beginning farmers and spouses to meet living expenses and/or to expand farm operations if their long-term goal is to farm full time.

Our new report, Beginning Farmers and Ranchers at a Glance, also compares beginning farms and ranches with established enterprises by other characteristics, including commodity specialties, participation in government programs, and value of production.  (Additional information on beginning farmers and ranchers can be found on the ERS website.)

USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture and the Department’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS), both currently underway, will yield updated data on these and other farms. We encourage beginning farmers and ranchers to participate in the Census and in ARMS, in order to be counted and in order for policy makers and program administrators to have an accurate picture of these farms.

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Jan 30, 2013

I would love to buy some land, where should I start from? Do USDA has some abandoned land that can be tried out for begging farmers? I have spend days and months but haven't found any reliable resource to buy some good farmland. Would really love any help regarding that.

Jan 30, 2013

This is a true report. A first time farmer and have no family members that farm and enough capital is the biggest challenge in growing fast enough to be profitable. Crop insurance has been a big issue in one county we farm in.

Jan 31, 2013

This article rings very true. We have a good off-farm income, but not enough capital to really begin a successful farming operation. We will be losing money for several years, just on animals and infrastructure. That doesn't even include our land, which we purchased with our house. Are there any grant opportunities available for animal purchases or for purchase of farmland, especially for alternative farming practices? Land is likely the biggest obstacle IMHO

Feb 04, 2013

Thank you for your comments!

@Warraich - USDA does not provide any programs to help producers locate farmland; however, there is a program that helps transition farmland from older farmers to younger farmers. The <a href="; rel="nofollow">Transition Incentive Program</a> transitions expiring Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land from a retired or retiring owner or operator to a beginning farmer or socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher. USDA Farm Service Agency also offers <a href="…; rel="nofollow">TIPNET</a>, an online service that links retired or retiring landowners with beginning farmers and ranchers who are interested in the Transition Incentive Program.

@Jeff - USDA Farm Service Agency does not offer any grants to help purchase farmland or livestock; however, the agency does provide <a href="…; rel="nofollow">Farm Operating Loans</a> and <a href="…; rel="nofollow">Microloans</a> that can help producers with general operating expenses that include purchasing livestock and feed, farm equipment, fuel, farm chemicals, minor improvements or repairs to buildings, refinancing certain farm-related debts, insurance and other operating costs, including living expenses.

Adrian Melvin
Feb 02, 2019

I want to start farming so my question is how do I get started and what animals do I need as a new person doing it

Ben Weaver
Feb 04, 2019

@Adrian Melvin - thank you for your comment. We are excited that you are interested in farming. Our New Farmers website has a variety of resources and information that may be helpful. You may visit a USDA Service Center near you to get started. To do this, please visit the USDA Service Center Locator.