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Much of Lancaster County is a patchwork quilt of farmland.

THE ISSUE

The average age of American farmers continues to rise, while the obstacles to entry into the profession for younger Americans remain daunting. “Nearly 29% of farmers were at least 65 years of age last year, and less than 13% were under the age of 35,” The Associated Press reported in a story that appeared in last weekend’s Sunday LNP. “Agriculture’s age imbalance and the barriers to entry for young farmers have not gone unnoticed by U.S. lawmakers,” the AP added. “A House panel plans a hearing (today) to start addressing the challenges faced by new farmers.”

“Farmers don’t retire.”

That quote is the final line in the AP’s story. It came from Mark Hosier, a 58-year-old Indiana farmer who was paralyzed in a farming accident in 2006 but nevertheless continued to work.

It’s a quote that gets to both the dignity and challenges within U.S. agriculture.

Farmers in Lancaster County and across this nation are the unheralded folks who put food on our tables, often by working from dawn to dusk (and sometimes far beyond).

Theirs is not a profession for the faint of heart, as LNP’s Jeff Hawkes detailed in an April article about the changing landscape of agriculture in Lancaster County, including shifts from dairy toward poultry and adjustments to the changing desires of consumers.

Nor is it for the young at heart. Literally.

“In the U.S. last year, the median age for domestic farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers was 56.4 years old,” the AP reported. “That’s the highest median age of any major occupation tracked by the government’s Current Population Survey for which data was available. The age has ticked up by half a year since 2012.”

We admire the doggedness of our older farmers. Hosier said he appreciates the new technology that allows him to keep doing his job despite his physical disability: “It does make you feel like a productive citizen. You go out here, and you’re earning money.” We still need people like Hosier and farmers in their 60s, 70s and even 80s who are continuing to work their land. (Some of them doing so simply because there is no good exit strategy for their families.)

But we must think of the next generation, too.

We must address the modern barriers to entry they face.

“Farmers staying on the job longer can restrict land options of younger farmers, making it harder for beginners to crack into the industry,” the AP reported. And it becomes a vicious cycle. Farmers keep aging, and America relies on an ever-higher percentage of older farmers for its food.

“It’s a problem,” agronomist Milt McGiffen told the AP, adding that there’s no “magic bullet” for fixing the demographics within the industry as the population — and its constant demand for food — steadily rises.

Added 79-year-old Michigan farmer Art McManus: “With the cost of land and equipment, I don’t know how you can make it work (as a young farmer). It’ll cost $1 million to get into it.”

We’re hopeful that the U.S. House hearing today can create momentum for new ideas in Washington to help the next generation of farmers.

And we’re appreciative of the work that’s already being done in our state. The Pennsylvania Farm Bill, signed earlier this month by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, invested $2 million “to support business planning, marketing, diversification, and transition planning services (for) Pennsylvania farmers” and created “a realty transfer tax exemption for any transfer of preserved farmland to a qualified beginning farmer.”

Republicans in the Pennsylvania Senate who pushed the “Farming First” legislation package noted their focus “on helping Pennsylvania agricultural operations remain competitive and profitable for current and future generations of farmers.” They cited sobering statistics: Of the 7.7 million acres of state farmland, 41% is managed by farmers age 55 or older, and, additionally, 11% of that land is expected to change hands in the next half-decade.

So we appreciate our lawmakers in Harrisburg being proactive on this.

And we also applaud the help being provided by AgrAbility, as detailed in the AP story. It’s described as “a partially government-funded program that helps (farmers) more easily maintain their farms.”

More than 1,500 consultants went out to individual U.S. farms last year to provide assessments and recommendations on the best available resources. “Our biggest-single call we get tends to be related to mobility because of arthritis and aging,” AgrAbility’s Bill Field told the AP.

Farmers, such as Indiana’s Hosier, can get advice in such areas as assistive technology, alternative watering or harvesting methods, new types of automation and even lighting setups for improved visibility.

Helping our older farmers continue to be successful while also making things easier for the next generation of farmers is a crucial two-front challenge for Pennsylvania and our nation. Lawmakers must continue to do what they can about these issues during an especially vulnerable time for our nation’s food producers.