ALBUQUERQUE — U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan sees an epidemic of sorts sweeping across America's farmland. It has little to do with the usual challenges, such as drought, rising fuel and feed prices or crop-eating pests.
The country's farmers and ranchers are getting older, and there are fewer people standing in line to take their place.
New Mexico has the highest average age of farmers and ranchers of any state, at nearly 60 years old, and neighboring Arizona and Texas aren't far behind. Nationally, the latest agricultural census figures show the fastest growing group of farmers and ranchers are those over age 65.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is beginning work on its 2012 census, and Merrigan is afraid the average age will be even higher when the data is compiled.
"If we do not repopulate our working lands, I don't know where to begin to talk about the woes," she said. "There is a challenge here, a challenge that has a corresponding opportunity."
Merrigan, a former college professor, is making stops at universities around the country in hopes of encouraging more students to think about agricultural careers. She was in New Mexico and Arizona last week, and had stops planned this week at the University of Colorado in Denver and Michigan State University.
Aside from trying to stem the graying of America's farmers and ranchers, her mission is fueled by a recent blog posting that put agriculture at No. 1 on a list of "useless" college degrees. Top federal agriculture officials are talking about the posting, and it has the attention of agricultural organizations across the country.
"There couldn't be anything that's more outrageously incorrect," Merrigan said. "We know that we're not graduating enough qualified aggies to fill the jobs that are out there in American agriculture."
Add to that a growing world population that some experts predict will require 70 percent more food production by 2050, she said.
The aging trend has been decades in the making. Between 2002 and 2007 alone, the number of farmers over 65 grew by nearly 22 percent.
New Mexico tops the list of states with the highest percentage of older farmers and ranchers at 37 percent, followed by Arizona, Texas, Mississippi and Oklahoma.
For every farmer and rancher under the age of 25, there are five who are 75 or older, according to Agriculture Department statistics.
While Merrigan can't explain why New Mexico is leading, she said the challenges for young people entering the industry are common across the nation — from escalating farmland values to accessing capital.
USDA has programs aimed at developing more farmers and ranchers and at boosting interest in locally grown food. In 2009 and 2010, projects in 40 states helped add thousands of new farmers and ranchers to the ranks, Merrigan said.