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Beginning farmers in it for the long haul, survey finds

MADISON – Almost three-quarters of Wisconsin’s beginning farmers plan to remain on the farm for at least 20 years, a recent survey found, but low prices paid for products and lack of access to land could get in the way of those plans.

When farmers who started their businesses between 2008 and 2012 were asked how long they expect to be farming, 40 percent said at least 30 years and another 30 percent said at least 20 years. But they saw some barriers to those goals. More than 70 percent saw low prices for their products as a barrier, and more than half thought lack of access to land might push them out of farming.

The Wisconsin Farm Center, housed in the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, commissioned the survey in 2014. Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Survey mailed the questions to Wisconsin farmers who reported on the 2012 Census of Agriculture that they had been farming five years or less. Their operations included dairy, other livestock, cash grains, forages, vegetables, fruits and other specialty crops.

“In order to know the best way to assist beginning farmers, we needed to understand the dynamics of their operations, along with their demographics, knowledge base and skills, and perceptions. That’s why we undertook this survey,” said Kathy Schmitt, who oversees the Wisconsin Farm Center. “We learned that more than 60 percent were the first generation on their farms, and that most do not have a written business plan. That’s important for us to know when we develop programs to help them.”

The 1,084 farmers who responded to the survey represented nearly 40 percent of Wisconsin’s beginning farmers. They were overwhelmingly white, male and married. The largest groups owned non-dairy livestock (36 percent) and cash grain (29 percent) operations. Just 11 percent were in dairying. Those in dairying tended to start their businesses at a younger age, from 26 to 35, than other types of farming. Those growing fruits tended to start their businesses at an older age than others, 56-65.

Among other findings of the survey:

• Although only 8 percent of respondents saw lack of financial management skills as a barrier and money management as the most important factor for successful farming, only 18 percent had written business plans. Vegetable and dairy farmers were the most likely to have such plans.

• Dairy farmers owned the most land among the categories of farms, at more than 130 acres average with more than 100 tillable acres. Not surprisingly, cash grain farmers were second, averaging about 90 acres total and 60 acres tillable. Fruit farmers owned the least land on average, less than 40 acres, half of it tillable.

• Farmers felt that production knowledge and work ethic were the second and third most important factors for success, after money management and financial knowledge.

• Other farmers, neighbors and friends, and the internet were beginning farmers’ primary information sources, 80-90 percent of farmers reported. Less than a quarter got their information from technical colleges and universities, 36 percent from University of Wisconsin-Extension, and about half from crop consultants.

• “Beginning farmers present a challenge to those of us who provide farmer education, because, based on this survey, they are not necessarily plugged into our information delivery systems,” Schmitt observed.

Complete survey results are available at