U.S. farmers are getting older, continuing a long-term trend, and the total number of farms is declining, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture released today by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The average age of all U.S. farm producers in 2017 was 57.5 years, up from 56.3 years in the 2012 Ag Census. “Producers also tend to be experienced,” NASS said in a fact sheet. “They had been on their current farm an average of 21.3 years.”

The amount of acreage farmed nationwide in 2017 was 900 million acres, down 1.6 percent from 2012, while the average farm size increased by the same percentage, to 441 acres. The number of farms fell from 2.11 million to 2.04 million, a 3.2 percent drop.

“All categories of mid-sized farms declined,” NASS said. “The largest farms (sales of $5 million or more) accounted for fewer than 1 percent of all farms but 35 percent of all sales. Small farms (sales of $50,000 or less) accounted for 76 percent of the farms and 3 percent of the sales.”

Fewer farms accounted for the vast majority of sales. “Just 105,453 farms produced 75 percent of all sales in 2017, down from 119,908 in 2012,” NASS said in a news release summarizing the report.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said at an event held Thursday afternoon that the department prides itself on being “facts-based and data-driven” and the data in the census is what the department relies on to make policy decisions.

“We have to have data like this to help us improve American agriculture. NASS is the only organization in America dedicated to collecting and disseminating agriculture statistics to the public,” Perdue said.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the census data reflect "the continued consolidation of U.S. agriculture," which has reduced the number of medium-sized farms, "concentrating wealth and power among fewer, larger agribusinesses." 

"We can’t sit idly by while the middle falls out of American agriculture," NSAC Interim Policy Director Juli Obudzinski said. "If we’re going to reverse these trends, we need to focus on programs and policies — beginning farmer and rancher programs, local and organic agriculture, and farmer-driven research to name a few — that help our family farmers thrive, not just survive.”

Obudzinski also cited "several positive points" in the newly released "Beginning farmers have increased by 5 percent over the last five years, for example. That’s a clear sign that interest in agriculture is rising, but it also means that we’ve got to increase our investment in support and outreach to meet that rising interest.

"We’re also seeing great trends in the organic industry — average organic sales per farm grew by 84 percent and the number of acres transitioning into certified organic also increased by 15 percent over the same period," Obudzinski said. "Similarly, local food sales continue to rise; the sector is up by roughly $1.5 billion since the last census.”

In 2017, U.S. farms and ranches produced close to $389 billion in ag products, down slightly from $394.6 billion in 2012. Crop and livestock commodities account for half the total. NASS noted that in 2012, for only the second time in census history, the value of crop sales exceeded livestock sales, but 2017 “is a return to longer-term trends.”

NASS said the number of male producers declined 1.7 percent, but the number of female producers increased nearly 27 percent, accounting for most of the overall increase in agricultural producers from 3.18 million to 3.4 million. The number of farms with just one producer went down from 1.18 million to 932,000. 

Ninety-five percent of producers are white; 3 percent are Hispanic, and 1.7 percent are Native American or Native Alaskan. Other ethnic groups include African-Americans (1.3 percent); Asian (0.6 percent), Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (0.1 percent), and “more than one race” (0.8 percent).

Beginning producers (those with 10 years of fewer in farming) made up 27 percent of the total number of producers.

Average farm production expenses rose 2.5 percent from the 2012 census, from about $156,000 to nearly $160,000.

More highlights from NASS:                                                        

  • The 273,000 smallest (1-9 acres) farms make up 0.1 percent of all farmland while the 85,127 largest (2,000 or more acres) farms make up 58 percent of farmland.
  • Of the 2.04 million farms and ranches, the 76,865 making $1 million or more in 2017 represent just over two-thirds of the $389 billion in total value of production, while the 1.56 million operations making under $50,000 represent just 2.9 percent.
  • Farm expenses are $326 billion with feed, livestock purchased, hired labor, fertilizer and cash rents topping the list in 2017.
  • Average farm income is $43,053. A total of 43.6 percent of farms had positive net cash farm income in 2017.
  • Ninety-six percent of farms and ranches are family-owned.
  • Farms with Internet access rose from 69.6 percent in 2012 to 75.4 percent in 2017.
  • A total of 133,176 farms and ranches use renewable energy producing systems, more than double the 57,299 in 2012.
  • In 2017, 130,056 farms sold directly to consumers, with sales of $2.8 billion.
  • Sales to retail outlets, institutions and food hubs by 28,958 operations are valued at $9 billion.

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