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USDA releases 2017 Census of Agriculture data

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There are 2,042,220 farms in the United States, down more than 3 percent from five years prior, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, which has just been released to the public. The census, which was delayed two months because of the government shutdown earlier this year, is used to inform a wealth of national and state-level policy decisions about ag education, research, farm programs, rural development, and much more.

The 820-page census is the deepest dive we have into the demographics, effort, and output of American farms. This updated report includes new information on military service, food marketing practices, and on-farm decision-making. These additions, compiled by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistical Service, help to better capture the roles and contributions of beginning farmers, women farmers, and others involved in running a farm enterprise.

Some of the key findings include:

  • Ninety-six percent of farms and ranches are family owned.
  • The amount of land in farms fell 1.6 percent to 900,217,576 acres. The average size of U.S. farms was 441 acres, up from 434 acres in 2012. There are 273,325 farms in the smallest-acreage category (1 to 9 acres), while there are 85,127 farms in the largest category (2,000+ acres).
  • In 2017, the total number of U.S. producers was 3.4 million, a 6.9 percent increase over 2012, as more farms reported multiple individuals involved in farm decision making.
  • The number of female producers stands at 1,227,461, which is up from 969,672 in 2012.
  • Beginning producers accounted for 27 percent of U.S. producers in 2017, with an average age of 46.3.
  • Just 105,453 farms produced 75 percent of all sales in 2017, down from 119,908 in 2012.
  • At the farm level, average income in 2017 was $43,053, down 2 percent from 2012.
  • Farm expenses are $326 billion with feed, livestock purchased, hired labor, fertilizer, and cash rent topping the list.

As expected, the average age of the principal producers inched up to 58.6, compared with 58.3 in the previous census. In the past 35 years, that number has grown by nearly a decade, though this year may skew the numbers a bit because of who the census considers a producer. While the 2017 census used a form similar to the 2012 census, one of the key additions to the demographic portion of the questionnaire centered on the people who make decisions on U.S. farms and ranches. Now, respondents could answer that there are multiple principal operators on a farm, where in the past only one was listed, and too often, it was the male head of the family. Now, women should have a greater presence in the data. Similarly, even the term “principal operator” has been changed to “principle producer,” to better represent what the data is attempting to convey.

The average age of all producers, not just principals, is 57.5, an increase of 1.2 years. The two smallest age segments in the census (by far) were producers under 25 years and producers 25 to 34 years old.

The deeper dive: Read more in our breakout segments about aging farmers, women farmers, veteran farmers, livestock herds, and beginning farmers.

“We can all use the Census to tell the tremendous story of U.S. agriculture and how it is changing,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said. “As a data-driven organization, we are eager to dig in to this wealth of information to advance our goals of supporting farmers and ranchers, facilitating rural prosperity, and strengthening stewardship of private lands efficiently, effectively, and with integrity.”

In 2017, U.S. farms and ranches produced $388.5 billion in agricultural products, down from $394.6 billion in 2012. Crop and livestock commodities each account for half of the total. In 2012, only the second time in census history, the value of crop sales exceeded livestock sales.

To no surprise, the number of mid-sized farms declined between 2012 and 2017. Only very small farms (annual sales of $2,500 or less) and very large farms (sales of $5 million or more) increased in number. The 76,865 farms in the top two categories (sales of $1 million or more) are fewer than 4 percent of U.S. farms; they sold more than two thirds of all agricultural production.

The top 10 states accounted for 54 percent of sales in 2017. California remained the largest provider of agricultural products, with sales of $45.2 billion, 12 percent of the U.S. total. They were followed by Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, and Kansas, respectively.

Other pieces of note:

  • Producers are 1.24 percent less likely to be primarily farmers; 1,635,688 listed “other” as their primary occupation.
  • U.S. military account for 11 percent of producers with an average age of 67.9.
  • In 2017, 75 percent of U.S. farms had internet access, up from 70 percent in 2012.
  • At the farm level, average income in 2017 was $43,053, down 2 percent from 2012.
  • In 2017, 130,056 farms sold directly to consumers, with sales of $2.8 billion.

Organic production is a niche that has been explored more thoroughly in recent census data. The numbers from 2017 show the number of organic farms increasing to 18,166, compared with 14,326 in 2012. That translated to more than doubling product sales, which now stand at almost 7.3 billion. Men tended to be more involved than women in organic production, and organic producers were on their present farms an average of 16.9 years.

For 2017, there was a 72 percent response rate from the known farming and ranching operations that the census was sent to. The data released includes insights into specialty crops and livestock as well as trends related to aquaculture, organic, and demographic aspects that aren’t available from annual NASS surveys.

The first Census of Agriculture was conducted in 1840 in conjunction with the decennial Census. After 1920, it was conducted every four to five years. By 1982, it was regularly conducted once every five years as it still is today, mailed to every known farm and ranch in the United States.

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