Who (Actually) Gets the Farm? Intergenerational Farm Succession in the United States
We link census records for millions of farm children to identify owner-operators of the family farm in adulthood, providing the first population-level evidence on intergenerational farm transfers. Using our panel of U.S. census data from 1900 to 1940, our analysis supports the primogeniture hypothesis that oldest sons are more likely to inherit the family farm. Daughters are rarely observed as successors. We find that the birth order relationship among sons is relatively small and is only present for the subset of families with parents who are working age when they first have a successor, indicating that they had a succession plan. In families without an early successor, adult children who are tenant farmers or are not in an urban area are more likely to later inherit their family’s farm. Tenancy and rural residence are much more predictive of succession than is birth order. Thus, unplanned succession may primarily benefit underresourced farmers. With fewer than one-fifth of farm families having a child successor, the slow growth in succession as parents reach retirement age and life expectancy suggests the importance of identifying a successor early.
We express gratitude to Marc Bellemare, Harry de Gorter, Richard Just, Jhih-Yun Liu, Qing Liu, Jesse Tack, Wendong Zhang, David Zilberman, and participants at the UC-Berkeley Agricultural and Resource Economics seminar for their valuable comments. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.