As a group, U.S. principal farm operators are older than the typical U.S. household head. In 2012, more than 31 percent of principal farm operators were age 65 or older (see table on the characteristics of principal farm operator households, by age of principal operator, 2012 ). The average age of principal operators in 2012 was 58 and has been greater than 50 since at least the 1974 Census of Agriculture. The age structure of householders (i.e., heads of households) for the United States in general is much younger. One reason for the advanced age structure of farmers is the farm's status as the family home. Nearly 20 percent of principal operators report they are retired. Senior farmers adjust to farming in a variety of ways, such as operating their farms at a smaller scale or participating in the Conservation Reserve Program.
In 2012, approximately 17.2 percent of family farms met the definition of a beginning farm (see Background for definitions). Beginning farms were more likely than other family farms to be small farms than established farms (see table on the characteristics of principal farm operator households, by experience of operators, 2012 ). Beginning farms accounted for 6.7 percent of the total production value of family farms in 2012. There are also established family farms (i.e., not considered beginning farms) that are operated jointly by more experienced operators and beginning farmers. While the majority of beginning farmers (85 percent in 2012) operated beginning farms, 15 percent of beginning farmers (making up only 3 percent of all farmers) jointly operated established farms with experienced farmers. Although beginning farmers are likely to be younger than established farmers, 35 percent of beginning farmers are over age 55 and nearly 13 percent are 65 or older. Beginning farmers are more likely than established farmers to have at least a 4-year college degree (34.3 percent compared to 23.5 percent, respectively). For more, see the Amber Waves feature, Beginning Farmers and Ranchers and the Agricultural Act of 2014 and Potential Challenges for Beginning Farmers and Ranchers in Choices.
Beginning family farms have, on average, higher total household incomes than established family farms, though they receive a much smaller share of their incomes from farming. On the whole, farm households receive a majority of their incomes from off-farm sources, reflecting the predominance of small farms among both beginning and established farms.
The vast majority (97 percent) of beginning farms are small farms (reporting less than $350,000 in gross cash farm income (GCFI)). Midsize farms—those with between $350,000 and $1,000,000 in GCFI—account for another 2.3 percent of beginning farms, and large-scale farms—those with $1 million or more GCFI—make up less than 1 percent of all beginning farms. Though small beginning farms account for half of total beginning farm production, large-scale beginning farms produce a relatively large share of total beginning farm production: about 26 percent. The remaining production occurs on midsize farms.
Beginning farms are located all across the country, but overall, the South is home to the largest percentage of beginning farms: 47 percent. The South also has the largest percentage of small beginning farms. Large-scale beginning farms are most likely to be in the Midwest: two-thirds of midsized beginning farms are located in the Midwest, as are almost half of large-scale beginning farms. The concentration of midsize and large-scale farms in the Midwest likely reflects the concentration of cash grain farms, which on average are larger than farms specializing in other types of commodities.