Report suggests Pa.’s ag diversity key to understanding its impact

Pennsylvania farmland

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s largest farms claimed the lion’s share of agricultural product sales and net farm income between 2012 and 2017, but the state’s many small farms made significant contributions beyond their economic impact, according to researchers in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

Recognizing the diversity of Pennsylvania agriculture is crucial to understanding its value to the state, noted agricultural economists in the college’s Center for Economic and Community Development. Their new report, “Understanding Pennsylvania Agriculture,” is synthesized largely from data contained in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture.

The ag census is compiled every five years, and the 2017 census was released in spring 2019. Using maps and figures, the report provides a visual update on the number of farms, land in farms, agricultural product sales, farm incomes and information on farm operators by county as of 2017.

“The bottom line is that the larger farms have the most sales and produce the most net cash income,” said Theodore Alter, co-director of the center. “Those large operations are located primarily in the southeast quadrant of the state. But Pennsylvania agriculture is very diverse in terms of the types of enterprises and the size, the distribution and the nature of farms across the state.”


In 2017, Pennsylvania had 53,157 farms — defined as operations producing or selling $1,000 or more in agricultural products in a year. Lancaster County was home to the most farms with 5,108, followed by neighboring York County with 2,067. Cameron County, with 37, and Forest County, with 36, had the fewest number of farms.

Half of the state’s farms generated less than $10,000 per year in sales, the report indicates, and about 7% of Pennsylvania’s total agricultural product sales were generated by farms with less than $100,000 in annual sales. Meanwhile, 67% of the total market value of agricultural products sold came from the roughly 6% of farms that had annual sales of $500,000 and above.

Counties with the highest total sales were Lancaster with $1.5 billion and Chester with $712.5 million.

The counties with the lowest values were Cameron, at $523,000, and Philadelphia, at $327,000. In terms of net cash farm income — defined as total income minus expenses — the approximately 3,100 farms with sales above $500,000 had total net cash income of nearly $1.7 billion, making up 75% of the total net cash income for all farms in Pennsylvania.


On the other hand, the more than 26,000 farms with agricultural product sales between $0 and $9,999 were collectively in the red, incurring a total loss in net cash farm income of $229.2 million.

“The tremendous number of smaller farms in the state suggests that there are many people involved in Pennsylvania agriculture for whom farming is not their main source of income,” said Timothy Kelsey, co-director of the center.

In fact, the report shows that in more than half of the state’s counties, at least one-third of producers annually work 200 days or more off the farm.

“For many of them, farming is a lifestyle choice, a hobby or a way to supplement income earned off the farm,” Kelsey said. “These smaller farms are important for enhancing the richness of agriculture in the state.”


The report also provides a brief overview of a few demographic aspects of Pennsylvania agriculture. For example, a map of the state reveals that female producers made up between 30% and 40% of producers in most counties at the time of the census.

Philadelphia County had the highest percentage of female producers, with more than 76%, and neighboring Delaware County had nearly 54%. In addition, nearly half of producers in Pike County were female.

Although the ag census suggests that the U.S. producers who are female grew from 31% to 36% between 2012 and 2017, changes to data collection after 2012 make identifying trends difficult, explained report co-author Siena Baker.

“The definition of agricultural producers expanded, counting up to four people who were making decisions on the farm, when previously it was three,” Baker said. “I think that indicates that women probably have been in these decision-making roles for a long time but now were included in the census to a greater degree.”

Cameron, McKean and Luzerne counties had the highest average age of producers in 2017 at 60.6 years old. Counties with the youngest producers, on average, were Philadelphia (42.5 years) and Lancaster (46.6 years).


Overall, Pennsylvania agriculture holds its own nationally, the researchers said, ranking 14th among states in the number of farms, 14th in the number of producers (90,461) and 19th in the market value of agricultural product sales (nearly $7.8 billion). By these measures, Pennsylvania is the top agricultural state in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic regions.

“I think you could argue that that’s a very strong position, given the diversity and nature of agriculture in the state and its proximity to major East Coast markets,” Alter said.

This and other center publications can be found online at “Understanding Pennsylvania Agriculture” is part of a series of upcoming reports from the center analyzing Pennsylvania data from the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

Other publications in the series will include “Male and Female Farm Producers in 2017: A Comparison Across Pennsylvania,” “Where the Soybeans Grow: An Exploration of Agricultural Land Use in Pennsylvania, 2017” and “Old and Young MacDonald Both Have Farms: Farm Producers by Age in Pennsylvania, 2017.”


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