By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- There were fewer middle-sized farms in 2017 than five years earlier, and the age of the average farm operator continues to tick upward, according to results of the 2017 Census of Agriculture released Thursday.
USDA boasted the 2017 Census of Agriculture includes 6.4 million new points of information about farms and ranches and the people who run them, breaking down more information to the county level. The data is used by policymakers to help determine local funding for a variety of programs, and the census data is often used to highlight specific information about farms and ranches.
USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service said the data shows that both farm numbers and land in farms have had small declines since the last census in 2012. There are more large farms and more small farms but fewer "middle-sized farms," according to the data. The average age of all farmers and ranchers also continues to rise.
According to the data, there were 85,127 farms with 2,000 or more acres in 2017, and those operators made up 58% of all farmland. At the same time, the 273,000 smallest farmers, each with under 10 acres of ground, made up just 0.1% of all farm ground.
There are 2.04 million farms and ranches, down 3.2% from 2012, with an average size of 441 acres, which is up 1.6%, from 2017. Combined, farms and ranches operate on 900 million acres of ground, which is down 1.6% from 2012.
Fewer farmers make up the bulk of U.S. farm sales, USDA noted. Just 105,453 farms produced 75% of all sales in 2017, down from 119,908 in 2012.
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%.
According to USDA, the average age of all farmers and ranchers is 57.5 years, up 1.2 years from the 2012 average.
The Ag Census showed 96% of farms and ranches are family owned.
Farm expenses topped $326 billion in 2017 with feed, livestock purchased, hired labor, fertilizer and cash rents topping the list of farm expenses.
While average farm income was $43,053 in 2017, a total of 56.4% of farmers had negative net cash farm income that year. USDA highlighted 43.6% of farmers had positive net cash income.
A total of 130,056 farms in 2017 sold directly to consumers, but sales reached $2.8 billion. That breaks down to average sales of roughly $2,153 per farm.
Regarding the internet of things, farms with internet access rose from 69.6% in 2012 to 75.4% in 2017. Still, roughly one-quarter of all farms do not have internet access.
Renewable energy systems on farms exploded from 2012 to 2017. A total of 133,176 farms and ranches use renewable-energy-producing systems, more than double the 57,299 in 2012.
USDA changed some demographic questions for the 2017 census to better draw in all of the people involved in the decision-making on farms. By doing so, the number of farmers and ranchers rose nearly 7% to 3.4 million people, with most of the growth because of multiple producers added per farm. Most of the new producers added were female as well.
The number of male farmers and ranchers fell 1.7% to 2.17 million from 2012 to 2017, while the number of female farmers and ranchers rose by nearly 27% to 1.23 million. USDA stated, "This change underscores the effectiveness of the questionnaire changes."
The changes show 36% of all farmers and ranchers are female and 56% of all farms have at least one female decision-maker. Farms with female producers making decisions tend to be smaller than average in both acres and value of production. Female farmers and ranchers are most heavily engaged in the day-to-day decisions along with record keeping and financial management.
There are 321,261 young producers age 35 or younger on 240,141 farms. Farms with young producers making decisions tend to be larger than average in both acres and sales.
Other demographic highlights include:
-- The number of producers who have served in the military is 370,619, or 11% of all farmers and ranchers.
-- One in four producers is a beginning farmer with 10 or fewer years of experience and an average age of 46.3. Farms with new or beginning producers making decisions tend to be smaller than average in both acres and value of production.
GROUPS REACT TO NEW DATA
The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) highlighted the census release, stating the data provides the only source of uniform, comprehensive and impartial agriculture data for every county in the nation. Census data provides federal, state and industry groups with data necessary to make informed decisions about agriculture, food and rural development, NASDA stated.
"Census data is crucial for understanding large trends and issues such as trading markets and the impact of natural disasters," said Barb Glenn, NASDA's CEO. "Good policymaking starts with ample and unbiased data. We encourage everyone to take advantage of this irreplaceable resource."
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said in a news release Thursday that the main takeaway from the new ag census data is that consolidation in agriculture is resulting in the loss of more medium-sized family farms and concentrating wealth and power among fewer, larger agribusinesses.
"The 2017 Census of Agriculture puts hard data behind what American farmers and farmer advocates have known for some time -- if we don't invest in beginning farmers and the advancement of our family farms, and if we don't put checks on increasing consolidation in agriculture, we're going to be at risk of losing the ag of the middle entirely," Juli Obudzinski, NSAC's interim policy director, stated in the news release.
However, Obudzinski also noted there were several positive points in the census that can serve as "guideposts" for determining the right investments and making food and farm policy decisions at the federal level.
"Beginning farmers have increased by 5% over the last five years, for example. That's a clear sign that interest in agriculture is rising -- but it also means that we've got to increase our investment in support and outreach to meet that rising interest," Obudzinski said. "We're also seeing great trends in the organic industry -- average organic sales per farm grew by 84% and the number of acres transitioning into certified organic also increased by 15% over the same period. Similarly, local food sales continue to rise; the sector is up by roughly $1.5 billion since the last Census."
To view the full 2017 Census of Agriculture report, visit: https://www.nass.usda.gov/….
For the USDA NASS Quick Stats data query tool, visit https://www.nass.usda.gov/….
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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