The average age of farmers today is 58, setting up a need to adopt new government policies to attract and retain new farmers and protect the agricultural industry’s ability to meet growing world food needs, according to Sen. Mike Braun, the top Republican on the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging.

Braun, who is running for governor in his home state of Indiana, released a new report, Feeding the Future, which details the unique challenges that lay ahead for America’s oldest workforce and potential policy solutions.  

“I think we need to come up with policies that encourage people to get into farming so that you can’t only do it by being of the heritage of it in the U.S., especially in policies that try to keep family farms going from generation to generation,” Braun said in an interview with Agri-Pulse.

Braun, who is a member of the Senate Ag Committee, said the workforce shortage is the top issue he hears when he travels to the 92 counties of Indiana. It was bad pre-COVID, but today there are twice as many job openings than before the pandemic.

In addition, today 40% of the nation’s farmland is owned by those 65 and older. And over the next 20 years, 350 million acres of farmland will change hands, the report identifies.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be 85,600 job openings for farmers, ranchers and agricultural managers by 2031, the report says.

“Despite this demand, operators of small farms are expected to continue to exit the sector and the next generation is not filling the gap,” the report says.

Factors contributing to this, according to the report, include reduced earning potential due to inflation, increased input costs, a lack of access to healthcare, and laws that make difficult the transferring of a family farm to the next generation.

“I want to make sure that our education is lined up to make sure that when you need excess labor or when you need more labor than what you can supply from your own family, that there’s going to be kids that are going to have the basic skills to come to a farm, earn a decent wage and help that family unit out,” Braun said.

Earlier this year, Braun and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., introduced the Jumpstarting Our Businesses by Supporting Students (JOBS) Act, which would expand Pell Grant eligibility to high quality, short-term job training programs like agriculture certificate programs, welding, diesel mechanics and CDL training.

He also introduced the Training America’s Workforce Act to make it easier for businesses and organizations to provide employees industry-specific credentialing through industry-recognized apprenticeship programs.

Braun believes both of those bills “have a good chance to get in” a new farm bill.

Braun and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., introduced the Death Tax Repeal Act, which would permanently extend the tax changes made in Trump’s tax cuts passed in 2017. That law increased the estate tax and gift tax exclusion to $12.92 million per person and $25.84 million per married couple in 2023 but expires at the end of 2025.

He said it’s “essential” that estate taxes make it difficult to transfer land to younger generations.

“A small business generally doesn’t have near the assets of what a small business is in farming. You can easily fit within an estate tax if you own a retail store or almost any other type of small business to get it to the next generation,” Braun said. “Farming starts to push the limits,” he said with the high costs of equipment and land making farming businesses a “multimillion dollar operation.”

Another challenge identified in the report is increasing agricultural innovation to help improve the profitability for farmers and meet the growing challenge to produce more with less inputs. One policy solution is the adoption of Braun’s Streamlining Organic Research Act, which directs USDA to renew its organic research and market development focus.

Braun sees the organic sector as one that future generations are interested in more than past generations. He believes it is less intensive per acre with great upside potential. “I think it gives farmers a way if they don’t want to spend all that money on equipment and acres, that they can do something on a smaller scale and still live off the land,” he said.

The report identifies a third challenge for farmers today is the need to streamline regulations and protect domestic agriculture.

“Today’s farmers are overburdened by a federal regulatory system that often relies on questionable science, lacks coordination between agencies, doesn’t accurately take into consideration costs and benefits and lacks transparency,” the report said. “Congress and the Biden administration must stop overregulating the industry and start prioritizing domestic agricultural production.”

He called for Congress to pass the Farmer-Informed WOTUS Act, which would create a panel at USDA to study the impact of the Clean Water Act on agriculture. The panel would be composed of farmers and ranchers representing different commodity and livestock associations. He also called for passage of the Define WOTUS Act, which would codify “what is and is not a federally regulated waterway” under the Clean Water Act.

Braun also called for support of his bill introduced with the Senate Agriculture Committee’s ranking member, John Boozman of Arkansas, to prohibit the Securities and Exchange Commission from implementing its greenhouse gas emissions reporting rule.

In order to protect domestic agriculture, Braun calls for Congress to pass the Protecting America’s Agricultural Land from Foreign Harm Act, which would prevent foreign adversaries including China, from leasing or purchasing agricultural land in the U.S.

“I think the thing that makes this more doable is many states have already weighed in on it,” he said.

This week, Northrup King Seed, a subsidiary of Syngenta, was ordered to divest ownership of 160 acres of land under an Arkansas law which prohibits businesses “controlled” by China from holding land in the state.

Braun recognizes the idea is new, and the Senate is a “place that doesn’t like to restrict anybody’s ability to own,” but he said that many opinions are shifting when taking into consideration China’s different geopolitical view than it was 20 years ago.

“I think that should be a no brainer that the folks that are trying to take us out geopolitically shouldn’t be allowed to, you know, have farm ownership, especially in quantities of significance or near sensitive areas,” he said.

In a statement to Agri-Pulse, Syngenta said it owns about “1,500 acres of agricultural land in the U.S., about the size of four average Iowa farms.”

All of that land, including the Arkansas tract, “is used for research, development, regulatory trials, and production to meet the needs of American farmers and to drive competition and innovation within the U.S. agricultural market,” the statement said.