The Michigan Farm Succession Study: Findings and Implications

June 30, 2012 - Steve Miller - Susan Cocciarelli

Executive Summary
James Bulder,* a 61-year-old Michigan principal farm operator, wants to retire in five years. Accepting the fact that no heirs will continue farming, Mr. Bulder faces parting with both the land upon which a successful farm business contributed to Michigan’s agricultural economy and the legacy of skills and expertise generated from this successful business.

Is James Bulder an anomaly, or are other farmers in Michigan facing this issue? If Mr. Bulder’s situation is not an outlier, is Michigan poised to lose farmers, farmland and the legacy of expertise that has been handed down through generations of farmers? These related questions prompted the Michigan State University (MSU) Center for Regional Food Systems to conduct the first statewide survey on farm succession.

During February and March 2011, MSU researchers surveyed 1,500 Michigan farmers to answer two key questions: how many Michigan farmers are considering retiring, and what is their land use intent upon retirement? Over 51 percent of Michigan farmers contacted responded to the survey.

This Michigan Farm Succession Report documents findings to questions posed to Michigan farmers about themselves, their farm operations, their retirement plans and their farm succession plans. Key findings listed below indicate that Mr. Bulder’s farm is not an anomaly in Michigan and raise the
question of who will be Michigan’s next generation of farmers.

— 40 percent of Michigan small-farm operators (the largest segment of Michigan farms) are over the age of 65.

— Within the next 10 years, approximately 35 percent of all Michigan farmers anticipate retiring.
— Less than half (38 percent) of those intending to retire will pass on their farm as one unit to one heir.

— Approximately 472,000 acres of farmland are in current operation by owners planning to leave farming in the next 10 years.

— The 28 percent in the 75 years old and over category who have not identified a successor largely indicated either “sale of” or “left idle” as intended plans for their farmland.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s 2013-2014 budget recommendations demonstrated fiscal support for an expanded, demand-driven good food economy by explicitly citing regional food hubs as an investment in Michigan’s farm sector. As farmers retire, addressing the question of who will continue to farm is key to keeping the momentum alive. The approach to farming, once an intergenerational business transfer, is shifting in the state. As Michigan invests in and grows its agricultural economy, it is important to cultivate and prepare the next generation of farmers.

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