Census of Agriculture
The Census of Agriculture is the most comprehensive source of data portraying our nation’s agriculture over time. The census is conducted every five years by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). On April 11, 2019, NASS released the 2017 Census of Agriculture.
Below are a few highlights from American Farmland Trust's inital analyses of the new census data along with some explanations and clarifications of terms and trends we identified.
Farm and Ranch Land
The Census of Agriculture tracks land uses on farm operations as reported by farm operators. Major categories include: total cropland, total woodland, permanent pasture and rangeland, and all other land including farmsteads, buildings, livestock facilities, ponds, roads, etc. Combined, these categories equal "land in farms." From 2012 to 2017, land in farms dropped from 914,527,657 acres to 900,217,576 acres. This represents a 2 percent decrease, but continues a steady decline that has resulted in a 86,579,003 million acre decrease in land devoted to agriculture since 1982. Declines in land in farms are concerning. Land that is no longer part of a farm may be more vulnerable to development; a shrinking supply of land in active agricultural use may create additional barriers for beginning and established farmers seeking suitable land (e.g., costs associated with clearing and restoring agricultural use); and a smaller pool of land devoted to agriculture may limit opportunities to establish sound farming practices and/or management systems.
Land in Farms
- Fewer acres of land in farms: Down 14,310,081 acres (a two percent drop)
- Most states saw a decline: 34 states experienced a reduction in land in farms
- Biggest acre losses: Texas, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and California
- Largest percentage decreases: Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts—four of the five reported double-digit percentage decreases
- Little change in share of land devoted to agriculture: Land in farms hovers at 40 percent of the nation’s land area
- The good news is complicated: 16 states experienced upticks in land in farms amid the nationwide decline. We’ll be looking to see if increases in land in farms coincide with increases in the number of farms, producers, or beginning producers.
Net changes in land in farms can be misleading. They provide one measure of the magnitude of agricultural activity, but do not tell us what is happening to the resource base. Decreases in land in farms, for example, do not equate to or represent conversion; they indicate that land has been taken out of active production. This land is likely to be vulnerable to conversion, particularly in areas experiencing development pressure. A better source for information about development and dynamic changes in land cover/use is the National Resources Inventory.
See the data table below for changes by state between 2012 and 2017. The table includes totals of land in farms for 2012 and 2017, as well as net change over a five-year period, and percent change over a 10-year period.
Land Under Conservation Easements
The census includes information about “land under conservation easement.” NASS, however, does not provide much guidance to operators about this question. Between 2012 and 2017, 39 states saw a net decrease in the number of farms with conservation easements, and 28 states saw a net decrease in the number of acres under conservation easements. Because most conservation easements protect land in perpetuity the expectation is that the numbers increase in each state. There could be a number of reasons for the decline: one is that producers who filled out the Census of Agriculture Survey either didn't understand the question or may not have known whether their farm is under a conservation easement, especially if they do not own the land on which they farm. Another possible reason is that those farms and farmland previously included are no longer in agriculture or are no longer counted in the Census of Agriculture. It could also be that previous census data had included term easements, such as those in the federal Wetlands Reserve Easements program, or other kinds of easements.
Another limiation of the data for land under conservation easements is that they could include the number of farms and farm acres protecting a range of conservation resources other than agricultural land (e.g. wildlife habitat, wetlands, open space).The numbers are also problematic because there is no differentiation between land covered by easements that prohibit future agricultural use and those intended to keep land available for agriculture.
In the 2017 Census of Agriculture, NASS, changed the way it reports on individuals’ roles in farm operations to do a better job capturing their contributions. This led to more people being identified as “producers,” (which now replaces “operators”) and a jump in the number of beginning producers.
- More producers (equivalent to all operators): Up 6.9 percent from 2012 to 3,399,834
- Fewer primary producers (comparable to principal operators): Down from 2,109,303 in 2012 to 2,042,220 in 2017
New and Beginning Producers
USDA defines beginning farmers as individuals who have been operating a farm for 10 years or less. The census historically only published data for operators with "fewer than 10 years of experience" and tracked "years on present farm." These numbers were used by many entities to talk about beginning farmers. The 2012 Census of Agriculture began including “years operating on any farm.” In 2017 they created a new category of "new and beginning producers" that includes producers operating "on any farm for 10 years or less." As a result of these changes over the years, it may be difficult to make direct comparisons from 2017 to 2012 or earlier. When making comparisons, be sure to compare similar items, such as: "years on present farm" vs. "years on any farm"; "fewer than 10 years of experience" vs. "10 years or less"; or which producer type (primary producer = principal operator, not to be confused with "principal producer").
- Beginners are on the rise: The 908,274 new and beginning producers based on 10 years or less of experience on any farm who now account for 26.7 percent of all producers and the 472,360 new and beginning primary producers based on 10 years or less of experience on any farm represent 23.1 percent of all primary producers. But another current measure of beginning producers based on less than 10 years of experience on their present farm counted 510,536 producers among primary producers, up a healthy 9 percent from a comparable number in 2012.
- Beginners still come in all ages: 32 percent of all new and beginning producers are 55 and older
- Slight uptick in young primary producers: Young primary producers 34 and younger inched up from 119,833 in 2012 to 121,754 in 2017
Despite the apparent growth in new and beginning producers, all producers are getting older, and the number of young producers inched up less than two percent.
- Farmers are aging: The average age of all producers climbed to 57.5 years and the average age of primary producers hit 59.4
- The proportion of senior farmers is growing: There are more than six times as many primary producers age 65 and older as primary producers 34 and younger
For more data on producers by age, see the infographics below: