Summary of Report
Change in Farm Survey Allows First
In-Depth Look at Farming Retirees
AER-730, May 1996
Thanks to a change in the nation's most comprehensive farm survey, a
new report from USDA's Economic Research Service provides the first
in-depth look at a significant segment of the U.S. farm
community--retired farm operators.
Who Are Retired Farm Operators? is based on
statistics from the 1993 version of USDA's Farm Costs and Returns Survey
which, for the first time, allowed a response of "retired" to a
question about the major occupation of the operator. The survey
identified about 352,000 retired farm operators, usually running very
small farms. These retirees, whose previous profession may or may not
have been farming, accounted for 17 percent of all U.S. farm operators.
The information on retired producers may have implications for
farm policy, as it gives analysts the ability to separate retired
farmers who may produce little from the farmers who produce the bulk of
U.S. farm output. The information also has implications for the use of
farming statistics, the importance of farming to retired operators, the
importance of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to retired
operators, and the future of farming.
Most of the farming retirees were counted as farm operators
because only $1,000 worth of agricultural sales is necessary for an
operation to qualify as a farm. About 84 percent of retiree-operated
farms had sales of less than $10,000 in 1993; only 2 percent had sales
of $50,000 or more. Therefore, although retirees ran 17 percent of U.S.
farms in 1993, their farms accounted for only 2 percent of farm
Also, the retired operators spend relatively few hours on farm
work, they operate only one-third the number of acres (143) as the
national average, and they depend heavily on Social Security and other
Retired farmers, however, receive two important economic benefits
from their farms: farms are a major financial asset, and they provide
nonmonetary income that is not included in standard measures of
household income. In 1993, retired operators' farms generated an average
of $3,500 in noncash income, made up of the rental value of farm
dwellings and the value of farm products consumed on the farm.
The CRP is important to retired farmers: about 18 percent had
land in the CRP in 1993, compared with 11 percent of all farmers, and
about 17 percent of their gross cash income came from government
payments, mostly CRP payments.
Because farm operators tend to be much older than the labor force
as a whole, using "retired" as an answer in the annual U.S. farm survey
allows a more realistic response for older operators who may be phasing
out of farming. About 27 percent of all farm operators were at least 65
years old in 1993, compared with only 3 percent of the civilian labor
force and 7 percent of the nonfarm self-employed.
Caution should be used when interpreting broad descriptions of
U.S. agriculture based on aggregate statistics. U.S. farms are diverse,
and national averages hide much of the variation within the industry.
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Updated: September 11, 1996