A Look at the Age of Second and Third Operators: An Opportunity for Farm Transition Planning?

Updated: Jul 7, 2020


Kids playing with small tractors around a large tractor (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).
Kids playing with small tractors around a large tractor (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

We often hear that there is an aging problem in agriculture. The 2012 Census of Agriculture puts the average age of all Maryland agricultural operators at 56.4 years old and nationally the average age is 54.9 years old. We often see this average age used to illustrate that there is an aging problem in U.S. agriculture. But is there one?


Table 1: Total Number by Age Group of All, Principal, Second and Third Operators in Maryland (Source 2012 Census of Agriculture).
Table 1: Total Number by Age Group of All, Principal, Second and Third Operators in Maryland (Source 2012 Census of Agriculture).

The 2012 Census of Agriculture categories break operators up into Principal Operator, Second Operator, and Third Operator. USDA defines principal operator asthe one primarily responsible for day-to-day operation of the ag operation. USDA allows for the inclusion of two additional operators in the Census. For example, John, his son Steve, and Steve’s daughter Stacy all farm together. Under the Census, John is potentially the Principal Operator, Steve would be the Second Operator, and Stacy would be the Third Operator. John may only be a figurehead in the operation at this point, but his age and status as Principal Operator is still counted as such in the Census. Now imagine a few thousand operations exactly like this one not only in Maryland but around the country. This could have some impact on computing the average age of producers.


Table 2: Total Number by Age Group of All, Principal, Second and Third Operators in the U.S. (Source 2012 Census of Agriculture).
Table 2: Total Number by Age Group of All, Principal, Second and Third Operators in the U.S. (Source 2012 Census of Agriculture).

What happens when we pull Principal Operators out of the data? For Second Operators in Maryland, the average age is 53.1 (table 1); nationally it is 53.4 (table 2). When we move to the Third Operator category, that average age drops to 43.9 in Maryland and 46 nationally. In Maryland, the percentage of producers under 25 to 34 years old goes from 4.9 percent of all Principal Operators to 11.17 percent of Second Operators, and 32.35 percent of Third Operators (table 3). We also see producers between the age of 35 to 54 higher for Second and Third Operators compared with Principal Operators in Maryland (table 3). Similar results exist when comparing the numbers nationally (table 4).


Table 3: Percentage of All, Principal, Second and Third Operators by Age Classification in Maryland (Source 2012 Census of Agriculture).
Table 3: Percentage of All, Principal, Second and Third Operators by Age Classification in Maryland (Source 2012 Census of Agriculture).