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Published February 21, 2014, 11:33 AM

Ag census shows farms are bigger, fewer, more prosperous

The Ag Census, conducted once every five years, says American farms, on average, are bigger, fewer and more prosperous. And though the number of young farmers has risen, U.S. farmers, on average, are getting even older.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

If you’ve been involved in American agriculture the past few years, you probably won’t be surprised by the main conclusions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture.

The census, conducted once every five years, says American farms, on average, are bigger, fewer and more prosperous. And though the number of young farmers has risen, U.S. farmers, on average, are getting even older.

USDA released preliminary results of the 2012 census, covering national and state data, on Feb. 20. Full census results, including county-level data, will be released later this spring.

The preliminary data provides “a snapshot of a strong rural America that has remained stable during difficult economic times,” Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a prepared statement.

U.S. farmers had record income of $395 billion in 2012, a 33 percent increase from 2007, when the last census was conducted, according to the new census.

“However, the prolonged drought and lack of disaster assistance have made it more difficult for livestock and mid-sized farms to survive. The (recently approved) 2012 farm bill guarantees disaster assistance and provides additional stability for farmers and ranchers,” Vilsack said in the statement.

Though the census reports an increase in large and very small farms, the number of mid-scale farms, the sort of operations that traditionally support families, declined from 2007 to 2012, says Traci Bruckner. She’s senior associate for agriculture and conservation policy with the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb.

She’s also troubled that, according to the census, the number of farmers in their late 30s through mid 50s declined. The rising number of farmers under 34 and over 54 shouldn’t obscure the loss of farmers in the middle of their career, she said.

National, state numbers

Following is a look at several key census findings for the U.S., North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana:

•United States — The number of farms fell to 2.1 million from 2.2 million in 2007. The average age of farmers rose to 58.3 from 57.1 in 2007. The number of farmers aged 25 to 34 rose to 109,146 from 106,735 in 2007.

•North Dakota — The number of farms fell to 30,961 from 31,870 in 2007. The average age of farm operators rose to 57 from 56.5 in 2007. The number of farmers aged 25-34, however, rose to 2,432 from 2,065 in 2007.

•South Dakota — Bucking the national trend, the number of South Dakota farms rose to 31,989 from 31,169 in 2007. A big increase in the number of farms with fewer acres than 50 accounted for the rise. Wayne Soren, vice president of the South Dakota Farmers Union, said small-scale, part-time farmers raising food for farmers market may account for at least part of the increase in very small farms. The average age of farm operators rose to 55.9 from 55.7 in 2007. The number of farmers aged 25-34 rose to 2,831 from 2,113 in 2007.

•Minnesota — The number of farms fell to 74,537 from 80.992 in 2007. The average age of farm operators rose to 56.6 from 55.3 in 2007. The number of farmers aged 25-34 fell slightly, from 4,490 to 4,517 in 2007. Dan Loftus, Minnesota state statistician with USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, said the full report, when released, should help to explain why Minnesota lost young farmers when most states gained them.

•Montana — The number of farms fell to 28,008 from 29,524 in 2007. The average age of farmers rose to 58.9 from 57.8 in 2012. The number of farmers aged 25 to 34 rose to 1,264 from 1,177 in 2007.

More in next Agweek issue

Bruckner noted that the census seeks to guide U.S. ag policy-makers. It provides the most comprehensive numbers available on U.S. agriculture and looks at land use and ownership, operator characteristics, production practices, income and expenditures.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service, the USDA agency that conducted the census, cautions that its numbers are only “estimates.” NASS mailed questionnaires to farmers and ranchers in December 2012. Completed forms were returned in early 2013 for NASS to analyze.

A farm, for purposes of the census, is defined as “a place that produced and sold, or normally would have sold, $1,000 or more of agricultural products during the census year.”

The cover story in Agweek’s March 3 issue will take a closer look at the census, particularly its findings for North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana.

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