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The AGgregator

Bench Strength

543,842 Farms with a Beginning Farmer on the Management Team(compiled by the Farm Credit Council from Ag Census data, shown by number of farms per county)

The depth of talent used to fill in as replacements for a sports team’s starting players is called “bench strength.” Every organization needs to have a sense of their bench strength, which you can think of as a list of who can fill in for the starting team in case of injury or retirement. In the world of business bench strength is more often called a “succession plan.”

A recent blog post from USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) made me realize how different my perception is from ERS’ regarding the bench strength in agricultural production. I think there are sufficient beginning operators now farming to keep America’s farms going in the future. By the Farm Credit Council’s analysis of the Ag Census, which gives a better representation of farm demographics than the ARMS data that ERS used in this graph, 25.8% of all farms have a beginning farmer now in a management/operator position.

As was pointed out in a previous blog post, the Farm Credit Council calls a “beginning farm” one where either the principal operator or at least one of the two junior operators listed on the Ag Census has been operating for ten years or less. By that definition, there are 543,482 beginning farms (429,545 farms where a beginning farmer is the principal operator plus 113,957 farms where there is a junior operator who is a beginning farmer).

In contrast, the ERS defines a “beginning farm” as one where all operators have 10 years or fewer of experience. I think this misstates the situation by not counting the ~113,957 farms where there is a beginning farmer already on the management team, yet not as principal operator. Junior operators represent the bench strength of those farms. They are beginning farmers who are now working as part of a management team and are likely to have the skills to take over the operation.

Larger farms, with higher gross sales, tend to report larger management teams since there is room for—and need for—more managers on a big operation. While on the Ag Census a very small farm may report only a principal operator, larger farms tend to report principal, secondary, and tertiary operators on their management teams.

Not counting those junior operators already on management teams seems to have led ERS to make what I consider an unsupported conclusion: that there are not enough beginning farmers. I believe the Farm Credit Council’s definition of a “beginning farm” (where at least one operator is a beginning farmer) gives a clearer picture of the "bench strength" of those farms that are more likely to be transferred to the next generation.

By defining a beginning farm as they do, ERS has essentially doubled down on using the presence of beginning farmers as the salient characteristic of farms where beginning farmers come from. That ignores what we know to be a major source of future farm operators: the children or employees of current farmers who are now working on farms in management positions.

I believe there is plenty of bench strength to assure there will be enough farm operators in the future. I guess the desire to reinforce the meme that we are running out of beginning farmers is hard to discard.

View the USDA/ERS post