‘Family farm’ alive and well, Census of Agriculture shows

By Jim Webster

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 7, 2014 - Family operations continue to dominate American farming and ranching, but they are increasingly larger and wealthier, in many ways more diverse, and make more use of the internet than ever, according to USDA's 2012 Census of Agriculture.

The 695-page document released Friday offers more evidence of the continuing consolidation of agricultural production. It shows 33,330 farms and ranches (1.6 percent of the total 2.1 million) accounting for half of farm product sales in 2012. At the same time, three quarters of all farms had sales of less than $50,000 and accounted for only 3 percent of the total farm sales.

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Details in the full report show that family operations prevail at every size. Family or individual operations totaled 1.8 million - or 86.7 percent of the 2.109 million farms and ranches across the U.S. in 2012. The total number of farms - any place that raised $1,000 worth of farm products in the year - declined from 2.204 million in 2007.

The 2012 census counted 914.5 million acres of farmland, a decline from 922.1 million in 2007, with an average farm size of 434 acres, up from 418 acres five years earlier. American Farmland Trust says the trend has resulted in a 72-million-acre loss of land in agriculture since 1982 and worries that it comes as global demand for agricultural products increases. The decline came largely in land planted to crops; grazing land (which accounts for 45.4 percent of all land in agriculture) actually increased to 415.3 million acres in 2012, from 408.8 million in 2007.

Even including the large number of very small operations, the average value of a farm surpassed $1 million, up from $791,138 in 2007. The big jump came in land value, which averaged $2,481 per acre, compared with $1,892 per acre in the 2007 census. Sales and production expenses both set records in 2012 - with sales worth $394.6 billion, and expenses $328.9 billion.

The new census is a story of continued decline in the number of livestock operations. Beef cattle operations totaled 740,978, down from 798,290 five years earlier. More than half sold fewer than 20 head in both years. Hog-raising operations declined from 74,789 in 2007 to 55,682 in 2012. About two-thirds of hog operations had less than 25 head. While total swine operations declined, those with 5,000 head or more grew from 2,850 to 3,006, making up two-thirds of the inventory. Dairy farms had a similar pattern: 64,098 operations had at least one milk cow in 2012 but the 1,807 farms with upwards of 1,000 cows accounted for 46 percent of the national milking herd.

After many years of increased contract production, the number of operations and commodity volume both declined from 2007 to 2012. Broiler chicken farms declined from 17,001 to 15,830 while meat chicken production fell from 8.6 billion to less than 8.2 billion. Likewise contract hog producers fell from 8,991 to 8,012. Production was off from 89.6 million head to 86.7 million.

While the number of Hispanic and African-American farmers increased, the number of female principal farm operators declined. Hispanic operators jumped from 55,570 to 67,000, African-Americans from 30,559 to 33,371. Female principal operators dropped from 306,209 to 288,254.

Other noteworthy facts: 69.6 percent of U.S. farmers have internet access, up from 56.5 percent five years earlier. Of those nearly 1.5 million online farms, almost half have slower dial-up or DSL service and just over half have faster broadband, fiber optic or satellite access. The top five states for agricultural sales were California ($42.6 billion), Iowa ($30.8 billion), Texas ($25.4 billion), Nebraska ($23.1 billion) and Minnesota ($21.3 billion). Principal operators average 58.3 years old and were predominantly male; second operators were slightly younger, many female.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack reprised a theme he expressed five years ago after the 2007 census - that USDA should help mid-size operations. His statement talks of “the continued need for policies that help grow the rural economy from the middle out” and sees “potential for continued growth in the bioeconomy, organics and local and regional food systems.” Organic product sales increased 82 percent since 2007, from $1.76 billion to $3.1 billion in 2012. That amounts to 0.8 percent of the $394.6 billion value of nationwide agricultural production.

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