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2017 Census of Agriculture gives a big-picture look at U.S. ag

If you're involved in U.S. production agriculture, you won't be surprised that U.S. farms are becoming bigger and fewer and that the overwhelming majority of U.S. farms and ranches are family owned.

Nor is it surprising that a majority of U.S. farms aren't making money, or at least not in 2017. But you may not have expected that farmers and ranchers on average continue to get older.

All this and much more — "6.4 million new pieces of information" — was released Thursday, April 11, in the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

The Census, conducted every five years by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is the best, most comprehensive source of information about U.S. agriculture.

The newly released Census was conducted in 2017 and reflects conditions then. Since it was conducted, farmers and ranchers' responses have been analyzed and compiled in the report released Thursday.

"We can all use the Census to tell the tremendous story of U.S. agriculture and how it is changing," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a written statement.

Among key findings in the new Census.

• There are 2.04 million farms and ranches (down 3.2% from 2012) with an average size of 441 acres (up 1.6%)

• The 273,000 smallest (1-9 acres) farms make up 0.1% of all farmland while the 85,127 largest (2,000 or more acres) farms make up 58% 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%.

• Ninety-six% of farms and ranches are family owned.

• Average farm income is $43,053. A total of 43.6% of farms had positive net cash farm income in 2017.

The average age of all producers is 57.5, up 1.2 years from 2012.

The rising average age of farm producers is a longstanding concern in ag circles, with questions about where the next generation of farmers will come from.

The ag boom of 2008-2012 attracted a number of young farmers as late as 2014 and 2015, and was thought by some to have reserved the long trend of rising farmer average age. But the new Census reveals this wasn't the case.

Still, the Census found that the farms with young producers making decisions tend to be larger than average in both acres and sales, an indication that the role of young farmers is growing.

There are 321,261 young producers age 35 or less on 240,141 farms.

NASS sent questionnaires to nearly 3 million potential U.S. farms and ranchers. About 24% of those who responded did so online.

Agweek's April 22 cover story will take a closer look at the 2017 Census.

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