5 Things You Need to Know From the New Farm Census

Becca Getz feeds elk grass at Hardware Ranch outside the town of Hyrum in northern Utah, December 15, 2013.

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service conducts a comprehensive census of American farmers to collect all sorts of demographic, economic and production data. When results are published, they serve as an invaluable tool for policy-makers, economists, journalists and anyone else who’s curious about agriculture on the national, state or county level.

Initially taken in 1840, the Census of Agriculture now occurs in every year ending in a 2 or a 7. Processing all that data takes some time, though, meaning preliminary figures for the 2012 Census of Agriculture have just been released. Below are six important things to know about American farmers and agriculture in 2012, as revealed by the just-released census data.

(Note: The USDA defines a farm as any agricultural enterprise that produces and sells goods worth at least $1,000 in a year. Demographic data discussed below is taken from surveys of each farm’s “principal operator.”)

1. American farmers are old white men

More than 92 percent of the country’s 2.1 million farmers are non-Hispanic whites, and more than 86 percent of those farm operators are men. The average age of farmers, which has been rising for decades, continued to inch up. In 2012, the average farmer was 58.3 years old, up from 57.1 years in 2007.

Iowa is the whitest farming state, where 99.3 percent of farmers are non-Hispanic whites. On the other end of the spectrum is Hawaii, where non-Hispanic white farmers make up just 33.8 percent of the total.

South Dakota has the most male-dominated farming community, with men comprising 92.7 percent of the state’s principal farm operators. In Arizona, the state where farmers are the closest to achieving gender parity, 60.8 percent of farmers are men.

Arizona also happens to be home to the country’s oldest farmers, with an average age of 61.0 years old. In Nebraska, which has the youngest farming population, the average farmer is a spry 55.7 years old.

2. But there are more minority farmers than ever before.

The total number of farmers in the United States fell by 95,000 since the 2007 Census of Agriculture. At the same time, the total number minority farmers grew – nearly 97,000 of them checked a race box other than “white” on their census forms. That’s a 6.9 percent increase from 2007.

The population of Asian farmers grew by 21.9 percent, the fastest rate of any minority group, up from 11,214 in 2007 to 13,699 in 2012. More than one-third of Asian farmers in the United States live in California.

The number of farmers of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino origin also rose by just over 20 percent over the same period, up to a total 67,014 – 22,353 of whom live in Texas.

3. American farmers’ gross incomes have skyrocketed since the last census

One of the biggest agricultural stories over the past few years has been the booming commodity prices that have allowed farmers to gross more than ever before. The total value of all agricultural sales in 2012 was a whopping $394.6 billion, up from $297.2 billion in 2007. Farmers did particularly well selling crops – total receipts were $212.4 billion, nearly 50 percent more than the $143.6 billion farmers earned by selling crops in 2007.

California is by far the largest agricultural state, accounting for $42.6 billion in total farm sales. Iowa ($30.8 billion) and Texas ($25.4 billion) round out the top three.

Top 10 states by total farm sales :

1. California – $42.6 billion
2. Iowa – $30.8 billion
3. Texas – $25.4 billion
4. Nebraska – $23.1 billion
5. Minnesota – $21.3 billion
6. Kansas – $18.5 billion
7. Illinois – $17.2 billion
8. North Carolina – $12.6 billion
9. Wisconsin – $11.7 billion
10. Indiana – $11.2 billion

4. Most American farms are small, and more than half of farmers are part-timers

Although the supposed rise of “mega-farms” receives a lot of press, 75 percent of all American farms grossed less than $50,000 in 2012, and just 4 percent grossed more than $1 million.

Just over half (52 percent) of the 2.1 million farmers in 2012 reported that farming is their secondary occupation. More than three quarters of all farmers, though, have been at it for 10 or more years.

5. We have fewer farms and less farmland than we did before

The United States had 95,000 fewer farms in 2012 than it did in 2007, as well as 7.5 million fewer acres of farmland. That’s equivalent to more than 11,700 square miles – an area only slightly smaller than the entire state of Maryland.

Over that period, the average farm size increased slightly from 414 acres to 434 acres, while the median farm size held steady at just 80 acres.

5 Things You Need to Know From the New Farm Census