Not Just Old McDonald: The Changing Face of Farm Operator Demographics
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in November 2017. It was revised February 2021 with updated statistics and new information.
The family farm is a symbol steeped in nostalgia – hazy harvest evenings, food grown from the land we’re all so proud to call home and knowledge and wisdom passed down through generations.
Family farms can’t help but be multi-generational operations. And while the cultural perception of millennials has long been one of foolish kids recklessly spending their money on avocado toast, the reality is that the oldest millennials are celebrating their 40th birthdays.
Even with that understanding, it’s undeniable that the average farmer is still older than even the oldest millennials. The average farmer in Canada is 55 years old (57 in the US). However, farmers over the age of 55 in Canada account for only 54% of the total number of farm operators – meaning that Gen X, Millennials (and eventually Gen Z), represent a large portion of the audience that ag brands need to focus on reaching. And though farm operators under the age of 45 account for only 20% of farmers in the United States, this proportion is destined to change quickly in the coming years, with more than a third of US farmers aged 65 or older.
Brands increasingly find themselves in the position of needing to effectively reach farmers across a wide range of ages, interests, and consumer habits. How do you do that effectively?
Millennial Loyalty is Not a Given
Huge numbers of farmers will reach retirement age in the coming years, which means that a not-so-small number of operations, both big and small, will be changing hands. As farmers age out of day-to-day operations and new decision-makers take over the family farm, ag-related companies are adapting their marketing to target this new generation of farmers and their attitudes towards business, technology and brand loyalty.
We could argue that no industry values brand loyalty as much as the ag industry. If you’re a Deere family, you’re a Deere family. If your baseball cap is red, it tends to stay red. And if you have your say, that red (or green or yellow) cap is handed down. In ag, brand loyalty is a legacy.
They don’t trust advertising, instead placing a high value on the opinions of their friends and family, and on reviews. They crave experiences and one-to-one interactions. Though they still prefer to do their purchasing and interacting online, they want to feel like the brand is engaged with them as an individual when they do.
Don’t Forget About Boomers
Marketing to baby boomers is still important. For the next decade, they’ll still be influencing some, if not all, of the direction of their operations.
This generation is extremely brand loyal and nostalgic, and they consider themselves hardworking, ethical and moral.
They’d rather make a phone call than send a text, or even better, talk in person. They aren’t afraid to read, especially information that is valuable to their decision-making process. And they’re on social media – but marketing to them there will feel like an intrusion.
You also don’t need to reinvent your entire portfolio to appeal to a younger generation. Boomers have the money and are willing to spend it on premium upgrades of familiar products. At the same time, millennials are attracted to innovation. New features appeal to everyone.
Don’t discount your boomer customers when it comes to the content you create for digital consumption – just remember their preferences. They prefer Facebook to other faster moving platforms, slower paced, information-rich videos, and they are willing to take action after they see something on social media, usually in the form of seeking more to read on the topic.
Informed Decisions Makers at Every Age
Today’s farmers, no matter their age, are well-informed. They’re current on the latest technologies, active on social media, and can conduct deep research with a few swipes of the finger (especially while they’re in a combine that’s being guided by a satellite). They make informed decisions at every turn, powered by the wealth of instantly accessible information online and their ability to sniff out inconsistent messaging, dubious claims, and spin is better than ever.
In younger farmers, there also exists an expectation that the information they are looking for exists and will be easily accessible to them. They have grown up digitally connected, and there is no excuse, in their minds, for the industry and the companies serving it not to be digitally integrated.
Word-of-mouth is of high value across all age groups. The difference is simply in how they want to hear the message. While a millennial is likely to turn to their social networks for referrals, a boomer is going to pick up the phone and call his neighbour.
Bright & Busy Young Farmers
Farm operators under 40 are also more educated than their older counterparts – seeking degrees, diplomas and certificates at a higher rate in ag and business-related fields. Part of this drive to higher education provides a hint to who these younger operators are: many pursue post-secondary studies in order to supplement their income and mitigate financial risk with off-farm work. Almost 60% of young Canadian farmers and 54% of young American farmers are working an off-farm job, and around 16% are choosing to live in urban centres, closer to work opportunities and peer relationships. As operations continue to grow and consolidate, not everyone can both work and live on the farm, which will likely increase this number. It remains to be seen, but it is likely that a more urbanized farmer may also be a farmer with a unique perception of the profession.
They’re busier than ever, and they’re bombarded by noise – everyone wants to reach them, right now. Brand and product messaging to millennial farmers must be quick, easy to consume and add actual value. If they give you their time, use it wisely. They’re more drawn to innovation than boomers, and they’re more open to trying new things, especially where you can provide social proof.
What About Gen Z?
While Gen Z remains a very young and relatively small proportion of the farming population, with the oldest of this generation clocking in at 24 years, they also represent the largest consumer group, even larger than millennials. That buying power will inevitably influence the ways in which older generations engage with brands across all industries. A quick and easy example is TikTok – largely seen as an “immature” platform, in the last year it has seen a great number of millennials hop onto the bandwagon. Loathe to be categorized as “old”, millennials are adopting platforms typically seen as meant for younger people, often to great success.
This doesn’t mean that brands should start a TikTok account in an attempt to reach millennials (yet), but it does demonstrate the undeniable power that Gen Z has, especially as they come of age. Characterized as the “do-gooders”, 60% of Gen Z want their jobs to change the world, and 76% are concerned about humanity’s impact on the planet. The youngest of young farmers will be confident advocates for the industry, powered by a social media landscape that disguises social change and education inside of 30-60 second entertainment clips. Understanding and empowering them will be a great tool for all brands going forward.
Demographics Matter But Psychographics Matter More
While age and other demographics are an important consideration, psychographics are more important. Within each generation lies numerous subsegments who have different values, motivations and interests, unique qualities often revealed through behavioural data.
When building out your marketing plans and customer personas, understanding those segments is what will bring truly actionable insight forward.