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April 18, 2014

Amber waves turn gray as farms lose younger generation

OKLAHOMA CITY — Jerry Pfeiffer was thrilled when his son, Kelsey, 25, announced plans to return to the family’s farm in Orlando.

Rather than get an 8-to-5 “real job” that makes more money, Pfeiffer said his son opted to come home to help raise about 300 cows and 700 female goats. Pfeiffer Farms sells many of its animals to become junior livestock projects for youth.

“It’s a very difficult way to make a living, but we’re glad he’s here,” Pfeiffer said of his son.

His two daughters are a different story. Pfeiffer said he doesn’t expect them to return to the farm full-time once they finish college.

The Pfeiffer family farm represents what’s becoming the exception to a trend confounding farmers and state agriculture officials. As fewer members of the next generation show interest in joining their family businesses, older farmers find themselves stuck with limited choices.

That worries Jack Staats, state supervisor of agricultural education, who said he knows some who’ve taken farms and ranches out of production, planting grass instead, because “they can’t find anybody that wants to come in behind them and farm.”

Farm land lost to the cracks between generations or that falls to another threat — urban sprawl — eventually will affect the food supply, said Staats.

“That’s scary,” he said. “Where are those crops going to come from if you change crop lands to grass?”

The average age of an American farmer is now 58.3 years old, up 1.2 years from 2007 and continuing a steady increase over the past three decades, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study released in February.

A report by the National Young Farmers Coalition three years ago found that for every farmer under age 35, six are over age 65.

For agricultural professionals the yawning age gap is a scary trend, especially for Oklahoma, where the industry is the state’s third-largest, according to Staats. Oklahoma has the fourth most farms of any state in the country, according to the USDA.

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