The Who's Who of Farming in America

The complex agricultural landscape is revealed in the most recent ag census.

A bell pepper farm in Camarillo, CA (Photo: Garry Conner/Getty Images)

Feb 23, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Every five years or so, the United States Department of Agriculture counts every farm in the country; it finds out how much it's making and what it's growing or raising, and records a glut of demographic information on who’s doing the work. On Thursday, the USDA released preliminary results from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, and even given the limited nature of the information reported (the full report is expected out in May), this week’s release provides a helpful snapshot of the state of farms and food production in America. Here are a few initial takeaways from the new data.

There Are Fewer Farms, but They’re Getting Bigger

The USDA counted 2.1 million farms (defined as “any place from which $1,000 of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the Census year”) in 2012, down 4.3 percent from the 2.2 million tallied in the 2007 census. Additionally, the data suggest that the number of farms earning more than $1 million annually doubled (from 2 percent to 4 percent of all farms) and that below the six-figure mark, incomes appeared to rise significantly for the largest operations as well. Overall, an eye-popping $394 million in agricultural products were sold in 2012, compared with $297 million in 2007.

An increase in the number of high-grossing farms may indicate an increasingly corporate food system, with agribusinesses propping up large farms in many places, observers say. Meanwhile, 75 percent of farms earn less than $50,000 per year.

"It's grossly loaded with inequity, in terms of how a top tier of farms can continue earning millions upon millions while the majority of farms struggle for meaningful subsistence — much like our socioeconomic situation as a population," says Matthew Young, a farm worker and local food activist in New Hampshire. "There should be policies and practices which encourage a 'trust-busting' of Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and other corporations which compel many farms to become 'modern sharecroppers' on a contract system."

Farmers Are Getting More Ethnically Diverse...

While the white male farmer still reigns supreme in agriculture, individuals running farms may finally be reflecting a rapidly diversifying population. Hispanic principal farm owners increased by 21 percent in 2012, and black, American Indian, and Asian farmers all saw a bump. But it’s hard to say whether these figures stemmed from actual increases in minority farmers or a greater national effort on the part of the USDA to count them.

“We made a very strong effort to make sure the immigrant and refugee populations are included in the census,” said Gary Keough of the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, who led the census collection in New England. “And we were counting any of the urban farms through Boston, Worcester, whatever—making every effort we can to make sure they are included.”

...But Not in Age

As we’ve known for years, farmers are getting older. In 2012, the average age of a farmer was 58.3 years old—up 1.2 years since the last census. The reasons behind this demographic shift are numerous: Fewer children of farmers are going into the family business, young people who start farming often don’t stick with it for very long, and scaling up a farm operation is proving to be difficult in today’s economy.

One potentially bright spot was the slight increase in farmers between 25 and 34 years old. But are those young farmers sticking with it? Keough says he isn’t so sure. In New England, the region he tallied for the 2012 census, farms that have been around for five to nine years dropped in several states since 2007, signaling, perhaps, the difficulty of sustaining a farming operation over the long term. The number of beginning farmers—those who have been running their current operation less than 10 years—declined by 20 percent in 2012.

Still, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was optimistic about the age demographics and stable number of small farms highlighted in the preliminary report.

“This reflects our work to grow both local and regional food systems and exports, but we must do more for mid-sized operations,” he said in a USDA statement. “The 2014 farm bill will expand support for beginning farmers and new market opportunities for all producers.”

Funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program received a $25 million bump in funding in the newly passed farm bill. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition reported that “in total, the new farm bill will invest $444 million directly into beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmer initiatives over the next ten years, representing an increase of 154 percent over the previous farm bill.”

As to whether the provisions in the farm bill can help bump the number of new farmers running small- to mid-size operations, we’ll find out in the next Census of Agriculture.