The USDA conducts a massive census of agriculture once every five years.
That census is the largest-scale data-gathering project of its kind, examining who owns farms, how much land they have, what sorts of farmers the country has, how much money farmers make, how much farm expenses are, and more. It’s vital for understanding where food and fiber in this country is.
The 2017 census was released on Thursday—it takes a little while to aggregate all the data, hence the delay—and it contains both good and bad news, though if we’re being honest, there’s more bad than good. One major difference this year is how the census defines who works on a farm; previously there could be only one principal operator of a farm, while this survey allows for multiples. That’s good for accuracy, though it might skew some numbers when compared to previous years.
The total number of farms is down 3.2 percent from the 2012 census, as is the total amount of land dedicated to farms and ranches. Yet the average size of farmland is up, meaning that the few farms that do exist are bigger—either expanding, or the smaller farms just haven’t been able to survive.
Of the over two million farms in the United States, just over 105,000 of them combine for 75 percent of sales, which goes along with the idea that consolidation is creating fewer, more powerful, larger farms.
Average income is down two percent; the average yearly income of an American farmer is now $43,053, which is below the average of American workers in general. The average age of the American farmer remains concerningly high, increasing by 1.2 years to 57.5.
The number of female farmers is up significantly, from about 970,000 in 2012 to 1.23 million in 2017. But this is one of those figures that could be skewed by the new rules: before, when a family farm was required to name a single principal operator, it’s possible that a man was chosen by default. Now, women might be more likely to be added as a farmer—but these aren’t necessarily new female farmers.
There is some good news. The number of farms using renewable energy has more than doubled. Internet access—more rare than you might think in rural areas—is up, too, from 69.6 percent to 75.4 percent. The number of organic farms increased from about 14,000 to about 18,000, but the amount of sales in organic produce has more than doubled. And small farms are increasing in number, along with the massive farms—it’s the middle size that’s being boxed out. (That one might not be good news, exactly.)
You can check out the full census here.