US Census of Agriculture shows shifts in farming

ag census, census of agriculture,
(Source: 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture)

The “shrinking middle” reality continues to hit U.S. agriculture, as new data released April 11 in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture shows there are more of the largest and smallest operations and fewer middle-sized farms.

U.S. farms totaled 2,042,220. Nationally, the mid-sized farms with 180 to 499 acres and 500 to 999 acres dropped 13.5% from the 2007 census to 448,338 farms. Large farms with 2,000 or more acres climbed 5.88% in 10 years to 85,127. Small farms, with between 1 and 9 acres, jumped 17.3% in a decade, to 273,325.

In Ohio, the census recorded 77,805 farms, which is actually an increase from the 2007 report of 2.5%.

But the 2017 census reports there were 10,574 Ohio farms with 180 to 499 acres, down 616 or 5.5% from a decade ago. The 3,955 Ohio farms in the 500-999 acre category were down 65, or 1.6%, from the 2007 census.

The largest Ohio farms, with 2,000 or more acres, numbered 781, up 129 or 19.8% from 10 years ago. The smallest Ohio farms, with 1 to 9 acres, numbered 10,333, up 33% from 2007.

We should note, the ag census definition of a farm is “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold.”

There are 53,157 farms in Pennsylvania, according to the latest census, which is repeated every five years. That total is down just over 10,000 farms, or 15.8%.

The census found 105,453 farms produced 75 percent of all U.S. sales in 2017.

There’s a lot to digest in the ag census, and I’m sure we’ll be sharing more with you in coming months.

We’re throwing a lot of numbers at you, but here are two stats to commit to memory: The total value of U.S. ag production in 2017 was $389 billion, and 96% of farms are family owned.

census of agriculture, family farms,
(Source: 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture)

Of course on the flip side of the ledger, farm expenses were $326 billion.

Behind the scenes, you might not realize the production change that is taking place. For example, Ohio cropland planted to cover crops doubled since the 2012 census. Now, more than 8,500 Ohio farms are planting cover crops on more than 717,000 acres, up from 357,292 acres five years ago.

No-till use was down slightly in five years, but reduced tillage was used on nearly 1 million more acres of Ohio farmland than in 2012.

census of agriculture, family farms, Big Ag,
(Source: 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture)

Intensive tillage continues to be used on 13,882 acres, a 30% reduction.


I’m just going to put this out there: Why is it that we celebrate a small company’s — often a family-owned company — effort to grow their business, but we typically shun that same growth in agriculture?

Take the Schwebel Baking Company, for example. Joseph and Dora Schwebel started baking bread in their kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1906, and sold the loaves door-to-door. Now, still a family-owned independent wholesale baker, Schwebel operates four baking facilities and 30 distribution centers across Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia to serve its retail and food service customers.

If we were talking about a farm building the same scale of century-long farm expansion, there would be veiled comments about Big Ag or “industrial farming.”

If you are bringing the next generation into your business, or back onto the farm, you have to generate more income to support that family. So we applaud the heritage of the multi-generation farm operations, but we complain when they add cows, or buy more land or “get bigger” to accommodate that next generation.

In my opinion, it’s a double standard, and we should be embracing every size, every commodity, every enterprise, every dream that keeps the family farm alive.



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