Every five years, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) takes a hard look at the state of US agriculture by conducting a Census of Agriculture. In a very real way, the census is one of the few opportunities farmers have to tell the USDA about their operations—who they are, and what they need. Today, USDA will publish its full report of the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Below is a snippet of the agency’s preliminary report, which compares select results of the 2012 census to those of the previous census, conducted in 2007. Stay tuned for a further analysis of the census. Without a doubt, the face of US agriculture has experienced some changes in the past five years, and young, beginning farmers should take notice.
Fewer farms; bigger farms. USDA considers a “farm” to be any operation that produces $1000 or more in product during a census year. The 2012 census counted 2,109,363 farms and ranches, representing a 4.3 percent drop from 2007. While the number of farms has decreased, the size of the farms counted increased by 3.8 percent, a significant shift in trend. The biggest losses of farms were seen in operations sized between 10-49 acres and 50-179 acres, while the number of farms sized at 1,000 acres or above remained virtually unchanged. Top 10 rankings of states for both number of farms and value of production help illustrate the size disparity: Kansas, for example, doesn’t crack the top 10 in number of farms, but ranks 6th in production value.
Operators are primarily older and male, but ethnically diverse. Most principal operators counted in the 2012 census were between the ages of 55-64, with a national average of 58. Most of these operators are male; the number of female operators fell 5.9 percent. However, the US farmer has become far more ethnically diverse than ever before. Since 2007, the number of African American, Asian, and Native American farmers has all increased. The number of Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino farmers took the biggest leap forward, from roughly 55,000 operators in 2007 to approximately 67,000 in 2012; representing growth in all but six states. Yet despite the increase in ethnic diversity, principle operators are still largely older males.
Small and beginning farmers are needed. With the majority of American farmers nearing retirement, young farmers will be a crucial element in maintaining a strong agricultural system. In 2012, census takers counted 469,138 beginning farmers; seemingly impressive until you consider that this number represents a 19.6 percent drop from the 2007 census. USDA also reports a whopping 23 percent reduction in the number of farmers who had been on their present operation for less than five years, showing that fewer people are taking on the job of farmer. The federal government defines a small farm as an operation making $250,000 or less in annual cash farm income. When the census examined farms by economic class (measurement combines market value of products sold and federal farm program payments), operations grossing less than $50,000 have significantly reduced in number, while operations grossing $1 million or more have significantly increased in number. According to census data, small farms may be disappearing.
Over the next five years, data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture will inform policymakers and shape agricultural law Already the Farm Bill is attempting to bridge the gap between small farmers and the tools they need: an additional $20 million will be given to the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program annually from 2014 through 2018. Young and beginning farmers have very specific needs, and very few opportunities to communicate them directly to our lawmakers. Participating in the census is one of the best ways for farmers to have their voices heard on the big stage. I encourage all young and beginning farmers to read through the 2012 census data and ask themselves if they feel represented. USDA sent out 3 million questionnaires in preparation for the 2012 census, and data shows that at least 800,000 were not returned. On May 2, those who participated in the census will help define the past five years of US agriculture. For those farmers who missed the 2012 census, don’t worry. In just three short years, the 2017 Census of Agriculture will be underway.