Key Questions Answered in the USDA’s New Census of Agriculture

April 19, 2019 | 4:29 pm
Marcia DeLonge
Former Contributor

Last week, the US Department of Agriculture released the findings of its latest 5-year Census of Agriculture (the 29th in the series, with data collected from the nation’s farms and ranches in 2017), providing an eagerly anticipated update to the nation’s most comprehensive agricultural dataset. Ahead of the release, I posted my top 4 questions for the new Census. Now that it’s out, what have we learned?

1. Yes, farmers are (still) getting older.

According to the new data, US farmers continue to get older. The average age of all farmers (or “producers” in the Census) went up from 56.3 to 57.5 years, and the average age of “primary producers” increased from 58.3 to 59.4 years. Furthermore, most farmers are still overwhelmingly white (95.4 percent) and male (64 percent).

However, the number of female farmers reported increased by 27 percent since 2012, whereas the number of male farmers reported declined by 2 percent. Note that this result reflects the effectiveness of the USDA’s changes to demographic questions, which allowed farms to list more than one producer engaged in farm decision-making.

2. Yes, farm consolidation continues to increase.

New data on farm economics show continued declines for both farm numbers (3 percent) and acres (2 percent), due to losses among mid-sized farms. Meanwhile, average farm size has increased by 2 percent. And the largest farms (with $1 million or more in sales) represented just 4 percent of total farms but accounted for a disproportionately high amount (69 percent) of total sales. Similarly, only five commodities (cattle and calves, corn, poultry and eggs, soybeans, and milk) represented 66 percent of all sales.

The latest findings also suggest that staying profitable is getting tougher on US farms. While expenses decreased slightly (mostly from lower feed costs), increased labor costs and declining value of agricultural production dented profits. Ultimately, farm incomes decreased, averaging $43,053, and only 44 percent of farms had a positive net cash farm income. Farmers also relied more heavily on government payments, which were 11 percent greater than in 2012. Likely related to these challenges, 58 percent of farmers reported that they have a primary occupation other than farming.

3. There is some evidence that healthy soil farming practices are catching on.

The most exciting news in this category is that cover crop use increased. The area planted in cover crops expanded from 10 million acres in 2012 to 15 million acres in 2017. The census also started collecting data on cover crop seed purchases, creating a benchmark for future years (115,954 farms purchased cover crop seed worth $257 million). Other conservation practices that increased included no-till farming (from 96 to 104 million acres) and conservation tillage (from 77 to 98 million acres). Though the gains are relatively small, they track the excitement we’re hearing anecdotally from farmers.

Interestingly, 30,853 farms reported using agroforestry practices, including alley cropping, silvopasture, forest farming, and riparian forest buffers or windbreaks, providing another useful benchmark for future years. This number is notably higher than data from 2012 in a similar, but much narrower, category, which found that only 2,725 farms reported using alley cropping or silvopasture.

4. New questions in the 2017 census offer new insights.

Thanks to new categories of data collection, we now know that 11 percent of farmers have a military background (i.e., currently or previously served on active duty in the US Armed Forces), and 17 percent of all farms include a farmer who has served in the military. We also now know more about farm decision-making than previous results were able to track. For example, female farmers are most involved with day-to-day decisions, record keeping, and financial management. Young farmers are more likely than older farmers to make decisions related to livestock.

Plenty more insights to come

My first glance at the data was enough to offer initial answers to my top questions, but only scratched the surface. After all, even the summary document is 820 pages long, the numbers themselves present the opportunity to explore an endless number of questions, and—as I mentioned last week—there’s a lot more data on the way!

In the meantime, a few takeaways do emerge. First, there are plenty of areas where the answers provided to my questions raise, well… more questions. For example, given that the farming population continues to grow older, and that consolidation continues, what solutions can we develop? Addressing these questions will likely require even more investment in USDA’s budget for research and economic analysis—not less. But to end on a positive note, the new census provides yet another piece of evidence for a different growing trend: farmers are increasingly adopting and recognizing the benefits of farming practices that build soil health. Now that’s good news. With the countdown to the 2022 Census of Agriculture beginning, let’s dream big about what we can do now to see an even more positive story in the 30th edition.