Farm numbers resume decline but rate of farmland loss slows

By Jim Webster

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 21, 2014 - The number of farms and ranches in the United States resumed their long-term declining trend between 2007 and 2012 but the pace of loss of farmland slowed dramatically, the 2012 Census of Agriculture revealed today.

USDA's National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS), which conducts the census every five years, counted 2.1 million farm units in the United States in 2012, down 4.3 percent from the 2007 census. The number of farms (defined as those capable of raising $1,000 worth of farm products) has not varied markedly in two decades from the 2.18 million in the 1992 census. It has been “a downward slope the last 30 years but stabilized the last 20 years,” Hubert Hamer, chair of the Agricultural Statistics Board, told the USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum.

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However, the amount of land devoted to agricultural production continued its slow downward trend, declining from 922 million acres in 2007 to 914.6 million in the 2012 count. The decline of less than 1 percent is the third smallest census-to-census decline in more than a half century but it represents a loss of 72 million acres (7 percent) in the past 30 years.

The aggregate numbers mask what has been happening for many years - the stability in the number of both large farms and small operations - while the number of mid-sized operations continues to deteriorate. Farms of 1,000 acres or more held steady at 173,483 (up 334 from five years earlier) while those of 10-999 acres had “a statistically significant decline,” Hamer said.

The data led Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack TO reprise a theme he described when the 2007 census was released - that more focus is required for mid-size operations. He said mid-size farms have found it more difficult to survive because of drought and the lack of disaster assistance.

He also expressed concern about the continued “aging nature of the farming population.” The average age of principal farm operators was 58.3 years, up 1.2 years since 2007, continuing a steady-30-year escalation. The number of those over 65 grew from 655,654 to 701,255 - representing more than one-third of all principal farm operators.

Yet Vilsack was encouraged by census findings of “a slight increase in young farmers,” giving credit to “our work to grow both local and regional food systems and exports.” He added that efforts to get more people interested in agriculture should be expanded. “Given the magnitude of the problem, we're likely to see continued aging of farm population, at least in the short term.”

Bob Young, chief economist and deputy executive director for public policy of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the increase in the number of beginning farmers under was “very interesting.” Participation of young farmers and ranchers in AFBF activities has “grown by leaps and bounds” in the last five years, he said. Those 40 and under are “a growing component” at Farm Bureau meetings, he said, “but we have lost a generation of U.S. agriculture.” Those in the 40-55 range have seen a decline in farm numbers, he added. “When you look at our membership, there's a bloc that seems to be missing.” Responding to a question, he speculated that “there was a period when farm economies were not quite as strong, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Folks that would have entered farming at that time found it was just not there to come back.”

NASS Administrator Cynthia Clark said she anticipated that more complete data to be released in May might show “an even greater number of beginning or young farmers.” The full census will show up to three principal operators per farm; preliminary data does not divulge those with more than one generation of principals in the operation. “I would be very surprised if the full report in May doesn't show a big increase in young farmers,” Young added.

Hamer said 2012 was an unusual year for agriculture, with severe drought in much of the nation's mid-section, record prices and a reduction in cattle herds. In part because of the sharp run-up in prices, the value of agricultural products sold in the United States reached $394.6 billion in 2012, up 33 percent ($97.4 billion) from 2007.

The gross market value of agricultural products sold - before taxes and production expenses - was up 32.8 percent from five years ago and more than four times greater than the 1982 census figure of $58,858, with the biggest increases in the past 10 years, said Troy Joshua, chief of the NASS Environmental, Economics and Demographics Branch.

Today's release “is only a first look at the data and we are eager to publish the final report this May,” Clark said. “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.” Vilsack explained the reason for the preliminary data: “Normally we would have the full thing by now, but we had a little thing called the ‘sequester' and other problems which delayed things,” he said.

Other highlights:

  • The average size of a farm operation in 2012 was 434 acres, up 3.8 percent from 418 in 2007.
  • 2012 crop sales of $212.4 billion exceeded livestock sales of $182.2 billion for only the second time in Census history; it happened once in 1974, the aftermath of large Soviet grain purchases.
  • Per-farm average value of farm sales increased from $137,807 to $187,093, continuing a steady 30-year upward trend. The increase of $52,285 was the largest rise in census history.

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