By CHERYL DAY
ACROSS the U.S. landscape, there are fewer farmers operating a smaller number of farms on a lesser amount of land than five years prior, according to the final results of the 2012 "Census of Agriculture" released May 2 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Once every five years, farmers, ranchers and growers have the unique opportunity to let the world know how U.S. agriculture is changing, what is staying the same, what's working and what we can do differently," said Dr. Cynthia Clark, the retiring head of USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, which administered the survey.
In fact, according to the final results, there are now 3.2 million U.S. farmers operating 2.1 million farms — which is defined as any place from which $1,000 or more worth of agricultural products were produced and sold — on 914.5 million acres of farmland.
The grand total means the footprint of the agriculture industry has shrunk by 95,489 farms that are farmed by 101,460 fewer operators, or 3.1% less. However, the actual land in farms declined by only 7.57 million acres, or 0.8% (Figure).
The average size of a U.S. farm is 434 acres, an increase of 16 acres from 2007. Texas remained the state with the most farms, at 248,809, which actually was an increase of 1,372 farms since the 2007 census.
In 2012, 173.1 million acres were farmed with conservation tillage or no-till practices. In addition, 13.2 million acres were utilized as conservation easements, and 10.3 million acres were cover crops.
Renewable energy production increased in 2012, with systems on 57,299 U.S. farms and ranches. More than 10,181 farms leased wind rights to others, and 9,054 operations had wind turbines on the farm. Moreover, 537 operations had methane digesters.
Unlike past census reports for agriculture, the 2012 census year was abnormal because drought conditions blanketed the major crop-growing areas of the U.S., which fueled record-high prices for corn and soybeans and aggressive reductions in the size of livestock operations, especially for beef operations.
As a result, agricultural sales and expenses both smashed record highs in 2012.
On the whole, U.S. producers spent $328.9 billion to produce $394.6 billion worth of agricultural products. Moreover, the net cash farm income for 2012 was $92.3 billion, a 23.7% jump from 2007.
Breaking down the data further, the value of crops sold equaled $212.4 billion, up 47.8% from 2007, and the value of livestock sold totaled $182.2 billion, up 18.7%.
Farms or ranches engaged in organic production in 2012 totaled 16,525 and sold $3.1 billion worth of products. Additionally, farms selling directly to consumers climbed 5.6% to 144,530 and had sales of $1.3 billion.
Following previous census trends, California led the nation with nearly $42.6 billion in sales in 2012; rounding out the top five states, Iowa had $30.8 billion in sales, Texas had $25.4 billion, Nebraska had $23.1 billion and Minnesota had $21.3 billion.
Beef cattle operations remained the largest individual segment of agriculture, with 619,172 operations, or 29% of total U.S. farms/ranches. However, a significant decline in operations — along with the cattle and calf inventory — occurred since the last census. Also, sales of cattle and calves had the highest value among the livestock segments.
For the first time, corn and soybeans captured 50% of all U.S. harvested acres, and they also claimed the top two spots for the highest value of sales for commodities.
Looking at production expenses, feed, non-breeding livestock, fertilizer, labor and cash rent were the top five expenses. Still, of the top 10 production expenses in 2012, the largest increases in input costs from the 2007 census were for seed (66%), chemicals (63%), cash rent (58.2%), fertilizers (57.6%) and feed (54.2%).
Faces of ag
The number of all farm operators in the U.S. during 2012 was more than the entire population of Iowa, and 87% of farms were operated by families or individuals (Infographic). Also, 2.4 million live on their farm.
The average age of a principal farm operator, at 58 years old, has been on a sharp upward trend for 30 years. The South had the oldest farming operators, and the Upper Plains had the youngest.
The second operator is usually younger and mainly female, and the third operator is even younger, which illustrates how multiple generations are involved in U.S. agricultural operations.
Overall, 30% of all farm operators are female, a drop of 15,520 from 2007. All categories of minority-operated farms increased between 2007 and 2012. Farms operated by Hispanics had a significant surge, rising 21%.
Young, beginning principal operators who reported their primary occupation as farming increased 11.3% — from 36,396 to 40,499 — between 2007 and 2012.