Agriculture is always changing, and every five years the U.S. Census of Agriculture sheds some light on those changes. A national survey of farmers is used to quantify the volume and value of farm products, where they are produced, by whom, on how many acres, and at what cost. Over time, to keep up with changes, new census questions are added, such as questions about direct marketing, Internet use, renewable energy and more. Here are some highlights of census findings past and present.
The first census dedicated to agriculture was conducted in 1860. The results showed over 2 million farms in the 34 states and seven territories, with 163 million acres of "improved" land. Midway through the next century, in 1950, there were over 5 million farms with about 1.2 billion acres of land nationwide. By 1974, a generation later, the country had lost half its farmers and some of its farmland; there were 2.3 million farms on about 1 billion acres.
Since then, the number of farms and acres of farmland have continued to decline, but at a slower pace. In 1997, we had 2.2 million farms on 955 million acres of land. The results of the most recent census, conducted in 2012, were just released, and they show 2.1 million farms on 915 million acres of land.
Most U.S. farms are quite small
The census defines a farm as a place where $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced during the year. About three-quarters of all farms had annual gross sales under $50,000 in 2012, and these farms produced only 3 percent of the total value of agricultural products sold. However, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data shows that these very small farms control about 22 percent of all farmland.
Small farms are important to the maintenance of open land, ecosystem services, local and regional food security, and other factors not measured by the census.
A few farms make most of the food
Farms with sales of over $1 million, or about 4 percent of all U.S. farms, produced 66 percent of the total value of agricultural products. The largest farms, those with sales over $5 million, produced about one-third of the total value of all agricultural products sold. California, Iowa and Texas lead the nation in total agricultural sales.
Farm income is rising
In 2012, U.S. farms sold $395 billion in agricultural products, an increase of $97 billion, or 33 percent, since 2007. Since 2002, gross farm sales have nearly doubled, from $201 billion.
Average net income per farm over that decade went from $19,032 to $43,750. Of course, these averages are affected by the fact that only half of all farms report making a profit. On a lot of farms, especially small farms, production expenses exceed revenues.
Fruit and vegetable sales are growing
The number of vegetable farms increased from 59,044 in 2002 to 72,267 in 2012. The number of farms growing fruits, nuts and berries went from 107,707 in 2002 to 112,690 in 2007, then to 105,737 in 2012. Between 2002 and 2012, sales of vegetables increased from $13 billion to $17 billion, while fruit, nut and berry sales went from $14 billion to $26 billion.
Direct market sales are on the rise
In 2002, there were 116,733 farms that reported selling products directly to consumers for a total of $7 billion. In 2012, the number of farms with direct markets had increased to 144,530, with sales of $9 billion.
Farmers are aging
In 2012, the average farmer was 58.3 years of age, three years older than in 2007 and eight years older than in 1982. Among 2.1 million principal farm operators in 2012, 92 percent were white and 8 percent were minorities; 86 percent were men and 14 percent were women; 78 percent had been in current operation 10 years or more; and 22 percent were in operation less than 10 years.
Young, beginning farmers who reported farming as their primary occupation increased by 11 percent, from 36,396 to 40,499, between 2007 and 2012. However, the total number of principal farm operators who have been in their current operation less than 10 years declined by 20 percent during the same period, dropping from 583,286 to 469,098.
In other words, there was an increase in new farmers who are not working off the farm, but the vast majority of new farmers do work off the farm, and there are fewer of these.
Communication technology on farms is changing, as in the rest of society. In 1954, 49 percent of farms had phones and 35 percent had TVs. By 1964, it was 76 percent with phones and 87 percent with TVs. In 2012, the census didn't ask about these things, but it did find that 70 percent of farms had Internet access, up from 57 percent in 2007. The number of farms with renewable energy systems doubled from 2007 to 2012, up to about 3 percent of all farms.
Want to know more about the status of agriculture and how it has changed in your particular state? Check out the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture, or links to previous census reports, at http://www.agcensus.usda.gov.
The author is a vegetable and berry specialist with University of Vermont Extension based at the Brattleboro office. He can be reached at email@example.com.