Preliminary census data renews attention on mid-size farms

By Jim Webster

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 2014 - The first installment of the 2012 Census of Agriculture shows 6.2 more women principal farm and ranch operators than five years earlier and a 2 percent gain in farmers under 35. It also adds to the arsenal of those, like Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who are pushing programs to boost younger operators and encourage those with mid-size farms and ranches.

It tells us that farms are fewer - down 4.3 percent to 2.1 million - and larger -- up 3.8 percent to 434 acres. But it will not be until the full package of census data is released, promised in May, that it will offer a full understanding of how the structure of agriculture evolved since the 2007 census. Then it showed continued concentration in agricultural production - that 75 percent of the value of production came from 125,000 farms, down from 144,000 in the 2002 census.

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The partial release is due to “a little thing called the ‘sequester' and other problems which delayed things,” including last fall's government shutdown, Vilsack said during USDA's annual Outlook Forum. The preliminary release “is only a first look at the data and we are eager to publish the final report this May,” said Cynthia Clark, administrator of the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).

The preliminary 2012 census does show that operations with sales of $1 million or more increased 42 percent to 81,634 and that those with sales less than $250,000 declined 6.7 percent to 1.85 million. Those between $250,000 and $1 million were up by 8.4 percent in five years.

The data allowed Vilsack to reprise a theme he described after 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 but said that USDA's attention to exports and local and regional production - familiarly, “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” - had contributed to the gain in young farmers and stable small farm numbers.

Another who was encouraged by the farm size data is Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “Part of the increase in mid-scale farms is accounted for by some favorable commodity price years, but structural changes are also quite likely part of the mix, including rapid growth in a variety of regional and national niche markets for value-added farm products,” he said.

While the increase in farm operators between 25 and 34 is encouraging, Hoefner says, the data shows continued aging of operators - the average age now is over 58 and the numbers over 65 and over 75 are growing. He advocates “a much stronger policy commitment to increasing farming opportunities to chip away at the aging of American agriculture, but it has to start somewhere.”

Final census data could show an even greater increase in the number of young farmers. NASS's Clark anticipates the May data showing “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,” Bob Young, chief economist and deputy executive director for public policy of the American Farm Bureau Federation, told the Outlook Forum panel after the preliminary data was released.

Participation of young farmers and ranchers in AFBF activities has “grown by leaps and bounds” in the last five years, Young 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.” 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.”

The 2.1 million farm units (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 but stabilized the last 20 years,” said Hubert Hamer. The amount of land devoted to agricultural production continued to decline, but at a slower rate, falling from 922 million acres in 2007 to 914.6 million in the 2012 count, a loss of less than 1 percent, the third smallest census-to-census decline in more than a half century.  Some 72 million acres (7 percent) have been lost in the past 30 years.

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