Editor’s note: This is Part I of a five-part solutions journalism series exploring the future of farming in north central Ohio. 

Some north central Ohio farmers have concerns about farming later in life — specifically the manual labor and long hours necessary, as well as keeping pace with ever-changing technology.

But for many, including Fredericktown farmer Jim Braddock, the plan had always been to work into their older years.

“We plan for retirement but we never plan on retiring,” the 68-year-old Braddock said.

The same is true for southern Knox County grain farmer Ed Piar, 61.

“Starting out, there was never a retirement age at all,” Piar said. “I mean, it’s just something you want to do the rest of your life because it’s part of you and you’re part of it. It’s something you can’t turn off and turn on.”

Concerns arise for Piar and Braddock not regarding their own careers continuing later in life, but when thinking about what will happen to their farm operations after they can no longer work.

Uncertain succession is a hard spot in Mount Vernon native Stephanie Plumly’s family as well. 

“My brother helps when he can, but again, he’s not the generation that’s there every day,” Plumly said. “So as far as that transition, I don’t think any normal talk has been made about how that will transition. 

“Personally, we’re not there yet.”

As multigenerational farming becomes less apparent in the area, many farmers are reluctant to talk about succession. Traditionally there has not been a retirement plan for farmers.

But local leaders in north central Ohio are working toward creating clearer options — specifically by eliminating barriers for both exit and entry into the profession.

Ashland County Fair 2021

Is the demographic aging, or is the profession changing?

Plumly, who is the agriculture teacher and Future Farmers of America advisor at Mount Vernon City Schools, grew up on her family’s farm. But she has seen her type of upbringing become less common among her students. 

“From the time that I graduated (from Mount Vernon) in the early 2000s, most of the enrollment were students who were growing up on a farm, whether it was a small farm or one that was providing the sole income for the families,” Plumly said. 

“And now, when I look at my membership and the way I teach my class, these kids aren’t going to be pursuing production agriculture as a career.”

Census data from Knox and Ashland Counties, as well as the state and country, reflect Plumly’s observations. The incoming number of young farmers is not keeping pace with the generation of farmers over 65 years of age.

The trend is not a new phenomenon but one that has been steadily progressing. 

The average farm producer age increased to 57.5 years old in 2017 in the United States, up 1.2 years from 2012, according to the latest census. The average farmer age in Ohio is slightly lower but has also been rising. Ohio’s average farmer age rose from 54.6 in 2012 to 55.8 in 2017. 

Most of the producers in both Knox and Ashland Counties are between the ages of 35 and 64, with the next largest age group being those 65 and older.

While farmers have historically been older than the United States population at large, the demographic is only tacking on years as time progresses. 

“Most farmers don’t like to talk about that or won’t talk about it,” Piar said of retirement. “But, you know, in reality, it’s going to happen.”

Tried-and-true tax credits from other states may be part of the solution to streamline succession in Ohio; however, succession is but one aspect of the future of the agriculture industry.

First-generation farmers are building networks that afford their peers support they may not get compared with farmers who have family lineage in the industry.

As interests and needs in agriculture change, so has agriculture education and operations. The next generation is expanding the breadth of the farming tradition, pursuing careers that support agriculture beyond working farmland. 

As the average farmer age in Ohio rises, community members are continuing the farming tradition, but in new ways. 

Next: Linking beginning farmers and retiring farmers has seen short-term success. Legislation could streamline the process long-term. 

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