Ag census shows boom in farm sales
By Larry Dreiling
United States agriculture enjoyed a booming economy, with market values of crops, livestock and total agricultural products reaching record highs even as the amount of U.S. farmland declined, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Continuing a long-term trend, the number of U.S. farms dropped to 2.1 million in 2012, about a 4 percent drop from five years earlier. But some of the bigger farms got bigger. The average farm grew from 418 to 434 acres.
The state with the most farms was Texas, which saw the number of farms increase slightly over the five years. Still, it lost about 200,000 farmland acres over the same period.
The survey, taken every five years, was released Feb. 20 and shows some growth in nontraditional elements of agriculture. While the industry is still overwhelmingly white, there’s been a rise in the number of minority-operated farms. And there are more farms in New England and many states in the Mountain West, while that number has declined in many states in traditional farm country.
In Connecticut, for example, the number of farms jumped by 22 percent over the five years.
George Krivda, legislative program manager at the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, attributes the increase in part to rising demand for locally grown food. “All of it is great, and it all speaks to the average consumer who’s more in touch with where food comes,” he said.
All told, U.S. farms sold nearly $395 billion in products in 2012, a third more than five years earlier. That averaged about $187,000 per farm—or an increase of $52,000 over 2007 totals. Most U.S. farms are considered small, though, with some 75 percent generating annual sales of less than $50,000.
In Montana, Department of Agriculture Director Ron de Yong said crop prices have fallen since 2012. “It’s part of the cycle, and we should cycle back up again,” he said.
While most of farm country is getting older—the average farmer is 58.3 years old—more people under the age of 34 are trying their hand at farming.
The average number of farms in Kansas during 2012 was 61,773, down 6 percent from the 2007 Census. Land in Kansas farms, at 46.1 million acres, remained about the same as that reported five years prior. The size of the average Kansas farm was 747 acres, up 6 percent or 40 acres from 2007.
During 2012, the average age of the principal operator in Kansas remained unchanged from 2007’s average age of 58 years. The number of operators under the age of 34 was 4,327, nearly unchanged from 2007, while the number of operators over the age of 65 totaled 20,497, down 3 percent from 2007.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says the small boost in the number of younger farmers—around 2 percent—is partly due to increased interest and government support for locally grown foods and a thriving export market.
“The preliminary data released (Feb. 20) provide a snapshot of a strong rural America that has remained stable during difficult economic times,” Vilsack said.
“We have slowed significantly the loss of farmland, which has totaled 72 million acres since 1982. New tools provided in the 2014 farm bill will help to further slow and reverse this trend. The data confirm that farm income is at a record high.
However, the prolonged drought and lack of disaster assistance have made it more difficult for livestock producers and mid-sized farms to survive, Vilsack said, adding the 2014 farm bill guarantees disaster assistance and provides additional stability for farmers and ranchers.
“A bright spot in the data is the slight increase in young farmers and the stable number of small farms and large-scale farms,” Vilsack said. “This reflects our work to grow both local and regional food systems and exports, but we must do more for mid-sized operations. The 2014 farm bill will expand support for beginning farmers and new market opportunities for all producers.
“Finally, the data illustrate the strength of diversity in crop production, markets, people and land use across the agricultural sector. While the aging nature of the farming population is a concern, we are hopeful that as we attract and retain the next generation of talent into rural America, this trend can also be reversed.”
Many younger farmers work at smaller operations, where the good farm economy and a rising consumer interest in where food is grown have helped them.
Vilsack said he wants farm country to “be aggressive” about recruiting and retaining younger people, as a third of farmers were older than 65 in 2012.
“The reality is, over time those folks won’t be able to continue farming, and the question for all of us is, if they don’t, who will?” Vilsack said after the report was released.
Vilsack has made the revitalization of rural America a priority at USDA. As people have moved to suburbs and cities, many communities have increasing poverty and fewer young people to take over family farms. He has also argued that the dwindling population has led to less political clout—made evident by a recent three-year congressional struggle to enact a new farm bill. President Barack Obama signed the bill, which provides farm subsidies and food stamps, into law in February.
“My question is not just who is going to farm, but who is going to defend them?” Vilsack said.
Vilsack said he is most concerned about the survival of middle-sized farms, which declined in the last five years. The number of larger and smaller farms mostly held steady.
He said he believes that decline partly came from a lapse in disaster assistance while Congress haggled over the farm bill, drought in many states and rising feed costs.
Ideally, he said, many of the younger farmers who are working on smaller farms will eventually expand their operations.
One area of growth for agriculture is minority-operated farms. The number of farms operated by Hispanics, African-Americans, American Indians and Asians all grew between 2007 and 2012, and the number of Hispanics who were principal operators of farms grew by 21 percent.
Still, farm country remains overwhelmingly white; 92 percent of farms are operated by whites while less than 64 percent of the general population is white and the minority population is growing.
Similarly, women operate only 14 percent of farms, and more than 90 percent of those were smaller farms.
The survey also found:
New England, Texas, Florida and many states in the Mountain West saw increases in the number of farms and some saw an increase in farmland. Many Midwestern, Southern and mid-Atlantic states saw decreases. Vilsack said much of the growth in those states comes from an increase in specialty crops, mostly fruits and vegetables, which are increasingly popular with consumers.
The 10 states with the most farms are Texas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, California, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Only Ohio is new to the list since 2007.
Conducted since 1840, the Census of Agriculture accounts for all U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them. The census tells a story of how American agriculture is changing and lays the groundwork for new programs and policies that will invest in rural America; promote innovation and productivity; build the rural economy; and support our next generation of farmers and ranchers.
“The release of the preliminary 2012 Census of Agriculture results is only a first look at the data and we are eager to publish the final report this May,” said NASS Administrator Cynthia Clark. “The 2012 Census was not conducted in a typical crop year, and drought had a major impact on U.S. agriculture, affecting crop yields, production and prices. NASS is still reviewing all 2012 Census items to the county level and therefore data are preliminary until published in the final report.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.