Ag census shows fewer bigger farms and more young farmersThe number of farmers aged 25 to 34 has risen, a welcome change in an economic sector where, by all accounts, more young blood is needed. Nationwide, the U.S. had 109,146 farmers aged 25 to 34 in 2012, up from 106,735 in 2007.
By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek
When Devin Jacobson finished his college studies, he left North Dakota to work at a Colorado ski lodge.
“I figured I was leaving for good,” he says now.
He was wrong. A year later, missing the Crosby, N.D., area, where he grew up, Jacobson returned home and began farming with his family. For the past three years, he’s raised durum, green peas and lentils near the Canadian border.
Jacobson, now 26, reflects one of the most encouraging findings of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, released in late February.
The number of farmers aged 25 to 34 has risen, a welcome change in an economic sector where, by all accounts, more young blood is needed. Nationwide, the U.S. had 109,146 farmers aged 25 to 34 in 2012, up from 106,735 in 2007.
Complete 2012 census results, including county-level and commodity data, won’t be available until this spring. But preliminary results of the survey — conducted every five years — indicate that farms, on average, are bigger, fewer and more prosperous.
It also finds that despite the influx of young farmers, the average age of farmers continues to rise. U.S. farmers averaged 58.3 years of age in 2012, compared with 57.1 in 2007. In contrast, the average age of all U.S. workers is 41, according to government figures.
The census reflects the great run of prosperity that American agriculture, at least on the crop side, has enjoyed in recent years.
U.S. farmers had total ag sales of $394.6 billion in 2012, about $97 billion more than in 2007. Crop sales accounted for $67 billion of the increase, livestock sales for $29 billion.
One measure of how good things have been on the crop side: In 2007, the value of U.S. livestock sales was $13 billion greater than the value of crop value. In 2012, in contrast, the value of crop sales was $30 billion greater than the value of livestock sales.
Few, if any, in agriculture expect crop farming to remain that profitable. Andrew Swenson, farm management specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service, says 2012 was “probably the apex” of farm prices and farm profitability.
The census also shows that American agriculture has become more “bipolar,” as Swenson puts it.
The census finds increased emphasis on both big and small operations, with fewer mid-sized farms.
Nationwide, the number of farms fell 4 percent from 2007. The decline would have been greater if not for a substantial increase in the number of very small farms.
And while there are more young farmers, there are more farmers 55 and older, too. But there are fewer farmers in their 40s and early 50s.
The ‘middle’ suffers
The decline in mid-scale farms and mid-career farmers concerns many in agriculture, including Traci Bruckner, senior associate for agriculture and conservation policy with the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb.
Typically, mid-scale farms support families, and fewer such farms means fewer opportunities for family farms, she says.
The decline in farmers in their 40s and 50s partly reflects what happened years ago, she says.
Because agriculture was difficult financially in much of the 1990s and early 2000s, relatively few newcomers began farming in that period.
As time has passed, that relatively small group of farmers has aged and advanced from the 25 to 34 and 35 to 44 age groups into the 45 to 54 group.
The larger number of farmers who were in the 34 to 44 and 45 to 54 groups, in turn, have aged and advanced into older groups.
Bruckner says she realizes that farmers advancing into older age groups accounts for much of the decline in the number of farmers in their 40s and early 50s.
Even so, the decline is troubling, she says.
Million-dollar farms in ND
North Dakota reflects most of the major national trends found in the 2012 census.
The most remarkable statistic might be the number of North Dakota farms with gross revenue of at least $1 million. The number rose from 1,278 in 2007 to 3,334 in 2012, an increase of 162 percent.
Nationally, farms in the category rose 42 percent from 2007 to 2012.
North Dakota’s big increase reflects a combination of high crop prices and generally good yields in 2012, Swenson says.
Farmers in the state also enjoyed a good year financially in 2007, but “2012 was about as good as it gets,” he says.
The 162 percent increase in million-dollar farms may also reflect, in part, the longstanding trend of big farms becoming even bigger, Swenson says.
In other words, some farms that were close to the $1 million mark in 2007 might have gotten bigger, helping them exceed that level in 2012.
Census results released so far, however, don’t have enough information on big farms to justify that conclusion, he says.
SD gains farms
South Dakota, bucking the national trend, gained farms, adding about 800 from 2007 to 2012. A big increase in the number of farms with fewer than 50 acres caused the overall number to rise, as well.
Small operations raising produce for farmers markets probably explains at least part of the increase, says Wayne Soren, a Lake Preston, S.D., farmer and vice president of the state Farmers Union.
“Even smaller (population) areas can have a farmers market. The access to fresh fruits and vegetables might be an up-and-coming thing,” he says.
Like most other states, South Dakota gained young farmers, with the number in the 25 to 34 group rising from 2,113 in 2007 to 2,631 in 2012.
“The 2000s have been pretty good for ag country,”Soren says. “Farmers in general aren’t as pessimistic as they had been. More parents are encouraging their children to come back to the farm.”
Like many in agriculture, he hopes recent farm prosperity also will boost the long-term outlook for mid-scale farmers.
“We might see a comeback of those mid-size farms,” he says.
Minn. has big farm loss
Many states lost farms from 2007 to 2012, but Minnesota suffered a bigger percentage loss than most states.
Minnesota had 74,537 farms in 2012, a decline of 8 percent from 80,992 in 2007. That drop is twice the national rate.
Another unfortunate statistic for Minnesota: The state had fewer young farmers in 2012 (4,490) than in 2007 (4,517), bucking the national trend.
Explaining the big loss in farms and the small decline in young farmers will be easier when the full census is released later this spring, says Dan Lofthus, Minnesota state statistician who works for National Agricultural Statistics Service, the USDA agency that conducted the survey.
A combination of factors probably is responsible for the unusual Minnesota numbers, says Ron Dvergsten, dean of the farm business management program for Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls, Minn.
He hadn’t seen the census findings when he talked with Agweek.
Minnesota is a major dairy state and was hit hard by tough times in the dairy industry, he notes.
Many small dairy farms have gone out of business, reducing farm numbers. And the lack of profitability discouraged young would-be dairy farmers from entering agriculture, he says.
Minnesota also has many more small farms than states such as North Dakota and South Dakota. Those small operations may not generate enough income to justify investment in modern technology, discouraging young would-be farmers from buying them, he says.
Dvergsten suggests that Wisconsin, another big dairy state, might be a better comparison for Minnesota than the Dakotas.
In fact, the census finds some important similarities between Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Like Minnesota, Wisconsin suffered a big decline in farm numbers from 2007 to 2012.
Also like Minnesota, Wisconsin lost farmers in the 25 to 34 age group from 2007 to 2012.
Livestock and Mont.
The 2012 census finds that Montana reflects the most important national trends, including more young farmers and increased farm profitability.
“It’s a generational thing,” Greg Wichman, a Hilger, Mont., sheep and cattle producer, says of the increase in young farmers.
Even so, Montana farmers, on balance, remain relatively old by national standards.
The average age of Montana farmers in 2012 was 58.9, higher than the national average of 58.3.
Five years earlier, Montana farmers averaged 57.8 years of age, higher than the national average of 57.1.
Wichman and others note that the 2012 census doesn’t fully reflect tough times for many Montana livestock producers.
Drought and high feed prices made turning a profit difficult, if not impossible, for many livestock producers in 2012.
In 2007, livestock accounted for about 53 percent of all Montana ag sales. In 2012, livestock accounted for only 36 percent of total ag sales in the state.
“It’s gotten better now, though,” Wichman says of the outlook for livestock producers.
Things to keep in mind
NASS cautions that the census numbers are only estimates.
Further, for purposes of the census, a farm 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.” Ag officials who talked with Agweek say that definition doesn’t provide a representative view of modern agriculture. (NASS says it’s using Congress’s definition of a farm.)
Also, preliminary results provide much more information on small operations than big ones. For instance, the findings released so far lump all farm operations of more than 1,000 acres into a single category. That limits the report’s usefulness in the Upper Midwest, where farms of more than 1,000 acres are common.
In any case, the census provides the most comprehensive look available at farm profits, numbers and operators.
Area farmers received the census in late 2012 and returned it to NASS in early 2013. The agency analyzed the forms before releasing its preliminary findings Feb. 20.
Jacobson helped out on the family farm near Crosby before going to the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D.
He played football and basketball there, graduating with a degree in athletic training. He then spent a year working as a lift attendant at a Vail, Colo., ski lodge.
But he realized while working in Colorado that he wanted to return to North Dakota and farm.
“I just missed the area. I knew this is what I wanted to do. I figured it out,” he says.
Crosby, a town of about 1,100, is in northwest North Dakota.
The desire to return home, not higher crop prices, motivated him to begin farming, he says.
His friends in Colorado didn’t exactly understand his reasoning. “They said, ‘You’re leaving here to go farming?’” he recalls.
Like most involved in modern agriculture, Jacobson stresses that would-be farmers need connections to get started. Access to land and equipment can be difficult, if not impossible, without help.
“It’s tough to get into it if you don’t have a tie to it. I’d be nowhere if I didn’t have my father (Lynn) to help me,” Jacobson says.
He says he understands that recent farm prosperity won’t last. He notes the 1997 drought almost drove his father out of farming.
“He’s definitely told me his troubles,” Jacobson says of his father.
Becoming a farmer, especially in a rural area, isn’t for everyone, he says.
“You’ve got to love it.”