As a group, U.S. principal farm operators are older than the typical U.S. household head. In 2011, more than 30 percent of principal farm operators were age 65 or older (see table on the characteristics of principal farm operator households, by age of principal operator, 2011 ). The average age of principal operators in 2011 was 58 and has been greater than 50 since at least the 1974 Census of Agriculture. The age structure of householders (i.e., heads of households) for U.S. households in general is much younger. One reason for the advanced age structure of farmers is the farm's status as the family home. Nearly 20 percent of farm operators report they are retired. Senior farmers adjust to farming in a variety of ways, such as operating their farms at a smaller scale or participating in the Conservation Reserve Program.
In 2011, approximately 22 percent of family farms met the definition of a beginning farm (see glossary). Beginning farms were more likely to be small farms than established farms (see table on the characteristics of principal farm operator households, by experience of operators, 2011 ). Beginning farms accounted for 10 percent of the total production value of family farms in 2011. There are also established farms (i.e., not considered beginning farms) that are operated jointly by more experienced operators and beginning farmers. While the majority of beginning farmers (89 percent in 2011) operated beginning farms, 11 percent of beginning farmers (making up less than 3 percent of all farmers) jointly operated established farms with experienced farmers. Although beginning farmers are likely to be younger than established farmers, perhaps it is surprising that one-third of beginning farmers are over 55. More than 10 percent of beginning farmers are 65 or older. Beginning farmers are more likely than established farmers to have at least a 4-year college degree (30 percent compared to 23 percent, respectively). (see Agricultural Outlook and Choices papers).