The numbers that tell the story of U.S. agriculture were released on Friday (May 2) and give the public and policymakers more information about the two percent of Americans who are farmers and ranchers.
During a webcast news conference, officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) released the final results of the 2012 Census of Agriculture. (Some preliminary data had been released in February.)
Joe Reilly, incoming NASS administrator, thanked farmers who took the time to respond to the survey.
One of the stories told by the six million data points in the survey is that farmers are selling a lot of commodities but it is costing them more to do it. Seed costs were up 66 percent and chemicals were up 63 percent.
Both sales and production expenses reached record highs in 2012. Producers sold $394.6 billion worth of agricultural products, but it cost them $328.9 billion to produce them.
Another point in the survey found that on average, farms are getting larger. The average U.S. farm went from 418 acres to 434 acres. The survey found that large farms are increasingly producing a larger portion of the agricultural output.
Three-quarters of all farms had sales of less than $50,000, producing only three percent of the total value of farm products sold in the country while those with sales of more than $1 million — four percent of all farms — produced 66 percent of farm products.
Over the last 30 years, land in farms has gone down by seven percent — 72 million acres.
According to the census, there are 3.2 million farmers operating 2.1 million farms on 914.5 million acres of farmland across the United States — that's 4.3 percent fewer farms than in the previous survey five years ago.
The snapshot of farming, taken in an unusual year for farmers, provides a detailed look at the U.S. farm sector at the national, state and county levels.
Officials have been studying and categorizing the data since the information was gathered in 2012. The government shutdown and sequestration cuts at the federal level had affected their work with the data.
Since 1974 the term "farm" has been defined, for census purposes, as any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produces and sold, or normally would have been, Reilly explained.
Reilly said the most valuable, productive agricultural land in the nation suffered through the worst drought in recent memory during the survey period. There were record prices for corn, soybeans and hay as well as "extremely damaged" pastures during the survey year.
"It was not your typical year," he said.
Data for this census was collected during the drought year, 2012, when 3 million forms were mailed to farmers and ranchers. The census is done every five years.
The majority of the information was collected by mailed surveys although to complete the data set a number of telephone calls were placed and there were some face-to-face interviews.
For the first time corn and soybean acreage topped 50 percent of all harvested acres; also, for the first time since 1974, crop value exceeded livestock value.
The largest category of operations, classified by production, was beef cattle with 619,172 or 29 percent of all farms and ranches.
According to Hubert Hamer, Jr., director of the NASS statistic division, who presented information during the webcast, 54 percent of the value of agriculture output was in the form of crops with 46 percent in livestock.
Corn accounted for $67.2 billion in sales or 17 percent of the value, with soybeans accounting for 10 percent or $38.7 billion. Hamer said all commodities increased in sales except for the nursery and greenhouse category.
The value of cattle was $76 billion, an increase of 21 percent from 2007, he said. Milk output was valued at $36 billion and 11 percent increase.
The census also showed that feed costs to livestock producers were up 54 percent from 2007.
The census provides information on farmers' tillage practices and what crops they grow. Farmers were asked about their use of cover crops — 133,000 farms used cover crops on 10 million acres.
Organic farmers had $3.12 billion in sales, up from $1.7 billion in 2007. Hamer said 5,700 organic farms accounted for 97 percent of organic sales.
Still, organic sales accounted for just 0.8 percent of the total value of U.S. agricultural production.
The census also found that the number of farms selling directly to consumers is up 5.6 percent — to 144,530 — and the value of those sales stood at $1.3 billion in 2012 — up 8.1 percent from 2007.
In addition the census found 49,000 farmers were selling directly to retailers and there were 13,000 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms enumerated in the census.
The average age of the principal operator of the farm was up 1.2 years from the last census, to 58.3 years of age. The average age of farmers has gone up by one year, in each of the census cycles, Reilly said.
Principal operators are predominantly male; second operators were slightly younger and likely to be female — also most likely to be the spouse of the first operator. Third operators were younger still.
Eighty-seven percent of all U.S. farms are operated by families or individuals.
Young, beginning principal operators who reported their primary occupation as farming increased 11.3 percent from 36,396 to 40,499 between 2007 and 2012.
The census asked about internet access and there were "gains across the board" for farmers in this area, officials said. Farms with internet access rose from 56.5 percent in 2007 to 69.6 percent in 2012.
There were 57,299 U.S. farms that produced on-farm renewable energy, more than double the 23,451 in 2007. Hamer said there wasn't a way for census takers to quantify the kilowatt hours of power production on the farms because much of the energy produced on the farm is used there too, to supplement other sources of energy that are already being used.
Administrator Reilly said the effect of the drought year when the data was collected is evident in the census figures."The drought put a lot of upward pressure on prices. Feed prices were up for livestock producers."
As the NASS continues to work with the data, it will be categorized by Congressional district and by watershed so policymakers and conservationists can take a look at geographic areas they are interested in.
They plan to produce maps to show where farmers depend on certain kinds of internet access — dial-up for example.
Specialy crop data that was taken in the census is available, but is not summarized yet.
Reilly said that as the census moves forward they will look at emerging trends – trying to define what is "local" produce and things like historic barn preservation.
The Census of Agriculture is an ongoing process, Reilly said, as the agency looks at what went well and what didn't and evaluate trends they want to get more information on.
It took a year for statisticians to handle the information that was collected from farmers in 2012. The government shutdown and sequestration cuts slowed the process.
"We've already commissioned a design team for the next census. The process is ongoing," Reilly said.
The federal government has conducted a Census of Agriculture since 1840.
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Maybe we could put these web addresses in a little box near the top?
For more on the latest Census of Agriculture –
A link to census data is also available on the USDA Open Data portal, www.usda.gov/data
Maybe this could also be a box we could use to break up the stories.
Ag Census broken down by county
Commodities rule in certain areas
Census of Agriculture figures were officially released on May 2 and officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) have broken down the value of agricultural output by county and state.
California led the nation with nine of the 10 top counties in terms of the value of sales. Fresno County was number one in the United States with nearly $5 billion in sales in 2012. That one county's output is greater than the agricultural output of 23 states, officials said.
Colorado's Weld County ranked ninth in the top 10 U.S. counties, and was the only one not from California.
The county and commodity output was also included in the survey, which is done every five years.
Fresno County, CA was the top orchard county; the top vegetable county was Monterrey, CA.
The nation's top rice county was in Georgia and the top wheat county was in Washington. Fresno County also topped the list for production of cotton and Cass County, North Dakota was the nation's top soybean county in the 2012 census.
Iowa had the top county for corn production; layer production was the highest in Lancaster County, PA.
North Carollina had the top hog-producing county and Nebraska had the top cow-producing county.
In dairy cattle, California had four of the top five counties.
Colorado's Well County had the top sheep production and Michigan laid claim to the top blueberry-producing county.
Yakima County, WA was the top apple-producing county in the census and Chester County, PA was the top mushroom county in the nation.
The top five states for agricultural sales were California ($42.6 billion); Iowa ($30.8 billion); Texas ($25.4 billion); Nebraska ($23.1 billion); and Minnesota ($21.3 billion).
Farmer-Jan, Census WI
SIDEBAR ON WISCONSIN PRODUCTION
State ag production rose in latest census
Output up 30 percent in five years
Wisconsin's Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Ben Brancel, said the Census of Agriculture numbers, officially released May 2, show that the type, size and production on state farms continues to change as farmers incorporate new technologies to be profitable and meet consumer demand.
Brancel said the state is known for its diversity and productive agricultural sector and the census numbers continue to support that.
The market value of Wisconsin of agricultural products was $12 billion in the 2012 census, a 30 percent increase from $9.2 billion in 2007.
This includes Wisconsin market value of crops, livestock, poultry and their products, including dairy.
The amount of net cash income of Wisconsin's farms continues to increase. Wisconsin farmers averaged about one percent more net cash income per farm than the national average.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's definition of a farm, for census purposes, is any place from which $1,000 of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the year.
Using that definition, Wisconsin is home to nearly 70,000 farms — that total number of farms decreased over the last five years. However, the number of oilseed and grain farms increased 46 percent in Wisconsin from 2007-12.
The number of sheep and goat farms increased four percent in 2012 compared to the previous census. Sheep and goat operations also increased their amount of sales from 2007-12 in all size categories.
There was a decrease in the number of farms in the 1-to-49-acre category, but they still accounted for 32 percent of all Wisconsin farms in the 2012 census. Farms with more than 1,000 acres accounted for only three of the state's farms in this report.
"We were a little surprised at the drop in smaller farms," Brancel said. "We thought that number would have remained steady or increased with the growing interest and popularity of local and regional foods and community supported agriculture."
There are about 14.5 million acres of land in farms in Wisconsin according to the census. In the five years between the reports, the biggest decrease in farmland came in woodland acres that was sold and separated from the farm.
The census found that Florence and Vilas counties had the largest decrease in land in farms statewide among counties.
"While no one likes to see the decrease in the number of farms and land in farms, it represents the evolving agricultural industry," Brancel said.
"There are several trends we'll look for as we analyze these numbers such as neighbors and multiple families combining farms to develop efficiencies or acreage in production through a rental or lease agreement rather than sole ownership. Land may have been repurposed from agricultural production to recreational use."
The 2012 Census of Agriculture also looks at the demographics of those who farm. The average age for a principal operator in Wisconsin is 56 years of age, the average age of the second operator is 52 years and the third operator is 44 years.
The average age of Wisconsin's principal operator is a bit younger than the national average — which is 58.3 years of age.
Nine percent of Wisconsin farm operators are age 34 years or younger.
The 2012 Census of Agriculture included data such as internet access and renewable energy. Seventy percent of Wisconsin farms reported having internet access in 2012. More than 1,500 Wisconsin farms had renewable energy producing systems, including solar panels, geo-exchange systems and wind turbines.
Brancel thanked Wisconsin farmers who responded to the census.
That participation, he said, ensures that "policy makers and industry leaders will have a better picture of Wisconsin's agricultural industry and be able to provide more meaningful support and make informed decisions."
Wisconsin had one of the highest return rates of the census questionnaire, he said, as 84 percent of Wisconsin farmers responded to the survey.