Aging farmers: don’t paint with too broad of a brush

It’s a common refrain in agriculture: In the U.S., aging farmers are getting even older. At 58, most other people would be seriously considering retirement, but the average-aged farmer is just getting started.

While there’s some evidence that the trend isn’t advancing as quickly as once thought, it’s still a set of numbers that are thrown around a lot in agriculture media and marketing circles. It comes up in topics relating to multi-generational farm operations and succession as well as asset ownership and management.

But we paint the “aging farmers” picture with a broad brush at our own peril. With an increasing focus on this group, agrimarketers need to be careful not to ignore the other decision-makers on the operation. This is critically important when it comes to marketing products like ag technology, crop inputs and agronomic services.

Let’s dig in.

Succession from aging farmers to younger generations

More than forty years ago, the average “primary operator” was just over 50 years old. According to the most recent federal ag census data, that number’s about eight years older. Part of it is due to the aging of the large Baby Boomer generation. Another is the longevity of farm proprietors that is enabling them to work to more advanced ages. What can we say? Farmers are tough men and women.

Today’s farmers’ ability to manage operations at an older age leads to later succession to younger generations. I’ve heard the story many times before. For some farmers, it’s not until age 60 that they finally take the reins from their predecessors.

And there’s the even younger generation. Farmers between the ages of 25 and 40 face an even longer row to hoe before they can take a financial and management leadership role on their family farms.

If I asked any of the thousands of farmers I’ve met over the years, many will agree that there’s no retiring from the farm. Some might slow down or become “snowbirds,” but very few will completely retire. Many prefer staying tied to the land as long as they’re physically, mentally and emotionally able.

Generational traits and why they matter

In a multi-generational farm operation, some key distinctions emerge from the three most common groups:

  • The “elder” generation — ages 65 to 80 and above; head of the operation
  • The “middle-agers” — ages 45 to 65; commonly a son or daughter with the broadest management responsibilities
  • The “up-and-comers” — ages 18 to 45; working their way into more diverse duties beyond simple labor

While these group traits are generalizations (and there are always exceptions), the elder generation typically has the most financial control. The up-and-comers are typically more forward-thinking and quicker to embrace new technology. This is unlike the older generations who are more likely to depend on proven strategies and tactics that have worked well for decades and make only incremental adjustments over time.

So when we talk about strategies and tactics to employ in agrimarketing, the very idea of “marketing to farmers” comprises way too broad of a brush to paint the full picture. In fact, today’s farmer demographics call for a full collection of brushes of different sizes and types, especially when it comes to different age groups. Simply approaching agrimarketing as a singular exercise isn’t enough. It requires a strong understanding of what you’re marketing and how it will be received and takes attention to different age groups, specifically two that represent the majority of farmers and farm decision-makers: those ages 18 to about 45 and those 45 and older.

Aging farmer breakdown

Group A: “Up-And-Comers” (18 to 45 years of age)

  • Less experienced, primarily manual labor
  • Few primary decision-making responsibilities
  • More technology-savvy
  • More likely to try new things
  • Less financially conservative

Group B: “The Middle-Agers” (45 to 65 years of age)

  • More on-farm experience, both labor and management responsibilities
  • More likely to have financial management experience
  • Less technology-savvy than the younger generation
  • Requires direct financial benefit to try new things
  • More financially conservative

Group C: “The Farm Elder” (ages 65 and above)

  • The most farm experience
  • Has primary financial decision-making duty, but seeks input from younger generations
  • Little acumen on and slow to adapt to new technology
  • Any new addition has to show ROI before its purchase
  • Very financially conservative, but willing to spend money on new tools if ROI is proven

There are a lot more variables in play, and yes, no two farmers on the planet embody all of these characteristics identically. But they’re important identifiers to account for in marketing to farmers, especially in connecting specific products to the right audience.

Take, for example, a piece of precision ag technology. Marketing that technology by showing the basic functionality of a new way to glean high-value field data for crop farmers will resonate better with Group A because they’re likely to understand the nuts and bolts of the process better. While Group B members may not understand the technology itself as well, they may be more likely to make purchase decisions. Members of Group C are the least likely to understand the technology but will ultimately adopt it if its ROI and overall value is proven. And most importantly when it comes to how we market to Group C, they’re the ones who are most likely to control the checkbook, so any purchase decision will happen only with their blessings.

Making it all work for you

So, is it best to market to the primary purchase decision-maker or the segment who will understand it best and can potentially influence his or her elders? It’s a question any effective agricultural marketing exercise must answer early on in the process. It starts with a clear understanding of these different sectors and what will most resonate with them in creating meaningful connections between your products or services to their business. And that’s often a process that’s rooted in years of experience in the agriculture industry and connections to what’s important to farmers, be them the young future leaders or the veterans with decades of experience.

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