April 17, 2019
Delayed by the government shutdown, last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the long-awaited 2017 Census of Agriculture. The 2017 Census surveyed nearly three million potential U.S. farms and ranches. Spearheaded by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the Census remains the most comprehensive source of agricultural data for state and counties across the U.S. and guides most federal farm programs, policies, and funding decisions.
According to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, the Census tells “the tremendous story of U.S. agriculture and how it is changing.” And changing it is.
Increased consolidation and economic concentration, declines in the number of farms, land being farmed, and farm income have occurred since the last census in 2012, and similarly, over the past decade. However, the number of beginning farmers, organic farms, and local food sales continue to climb – a bright spot in an otherwise bleak farming outlook marked by continued shrinking of the “ag of the middle” and decreased farm profitability.
Overall, the 2017 Census of Agriculture reports that the total number of farms is down nationwide, while the average farm continues to increase in size. As of 2017, there were 2.04 million farms and ranches across the U.S. – a decrease of 3.2 percent over the past 5 years. The average size of a farm, on the other hand, increased slightly to 441 acres out of a total of 900 million acres farmed in the U.S.
While the total number of operations shrank, the overall value of all agricultural production decreased only slightly – meaning that as 100,000+ small and medium-sized farms transitioned out of farming over the past five years, their land (and production) were folded into larger and larger operations. This trend towards increased consolidation is evident in looking at trends across farm sizes. Over the last five years, all categories of mid-sized farms declined while very small and large farms increased in numbers (see chart below).
Only 105,453 farms (5 percent) produced 75 percent of all sales in 2017 – 12 percent fewer farms since 2012. What’s more is that the largest farms (sales of $5 million or more) accounted for fewer than one percent of all farms, but 35 percent of all sales. Small farms (less than $50,000 in sales), on the other hand, accounted for 76 percent of farms but only 3 percent of sales. This continues the trend of not only consolidation, but further economic concentration of larger and larger farms producing more and more of the total food grown and raised in this country.
The 2017 Census made significant revisions to the way that demographic data on individual producers was collected. Farmers – or producers as they are termed in the Census – are defined broadly as any individual making decisions about a farming operation. For the first time, the Census no longer asked farm operations to identify a “Principal Operator” but instead collected data on up to four operators (aka “farmers”) per farm.
This change resulted in more robust data on the role of young, beginning, and women farmers in decision-making on the farm, and also resulted in NASS actually counting more farmers, compared to previous Censuses. A few highlights on the demographics of farmers:
Despite the prolonged downturn in the overall farm economy, the value of all ag production only declined 1.5 percent compared to the last Census. However, when put in the context of previous trends – which saw a 32 percent and 47 percent increase in the value of U.S. ag production in the 2012 and 2007 Censuses respectively – the 2017 data clearly reflects the realities of a sluggish farm economy.
Overall, farm income declined in 2017 while expenses per farm increased. Average farm income was $43,053 (down 2 percent), with less than half (43.6 percent) of farmers reporting a profit in 2017 – down slightly from 2012.
NSAC will be taking a more in-depth look at the 2017 Census of Agriculture in the coming weeks to asses trends facing sustainable agriculture – including what the new Census data tells us about the next generation of farmers, growth in local and organic food, the increasing diversity of our nation’s farmers, and adoption of conservation practices. A few highlights are provided below:
Beginning Farmers. NASS defines these farmers as having less than 10 years of experience in farming. Most of these farmer are in cattle ranching and crop farming.
Organic and Local Food. The Census found robust growth in organic production over the last five years, both in terms of sales, number of certified farms, and acres transitioning to organic. This, coupled with a consumer shift to local food markets, is changing the face of U.S. agriculture.
For more on the 2017 Census of Agriculture stay tuned to the NSAC blog, and check out the following resources: