2007 Census of Agriculture: Agriculture’s ‘middle’ slipping away


SALEM, Ohio — There are more farms in the U.S. today than five years ago. But the growing numbers are of very small farms and very large farms. In between is agriculture’s disappearing middle.

The 2007 Census of Agriculture data released Feb. 4 by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service showed a national trend toward more small farms and more very large farms, and fewer mid-sized farms.

More farms

The number of U.S. farms has grown 4 percent and now stands at 2.2 million, an increase of 75,810 farms since the last census in 2002. Notably, nearly 300,000 new farms have begun operations in the last five years.

Compared to all farms, these new farms were more diverse in production, had fewer acres and lower sales. The operators were younger, and also work more off the farm than the typical farmer.

The ranks at the lower end and upper end of the size spectrum are growing. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of farms with sales of less than $2,500 increased by 74,000. The number of farms with sales of more than $500,000 grew by 46,000.

In terms of farm sales, 125,000 farms account for 75 percent of production, compared to 144,000 farms accounting for 75 percent of production in 2002.

Part-time or retired

More than a third of all farms (36 percent) are classified as “residential/lifestyle” farms, with sales of less than $250,000 and operators who claim a primary occupation other than farming. Another 21 percent are “retirement” farms, which have sales of less than $250,000 and operators who report they are retired.

The classification of Ohio farms looks a lot like the national trend, said Jim Ramey, director of the National Agriculture Statistics Service’s Ohio office. Forty percent are “residential or lifestyle” farms; 20 percent are “retirement” farms.

Fewer farms in Ohio

Ramey also said the number of Ohio farms declined 2.5 percent between 2002 and 2007 — farm numbers now stand at 75,861 in the Buckeye State.

“We’re slipping back a little, I believe,” Ramey said.

He had not had time to analyze all the numbers to be able to identify what counties, what types of farms or what size of farms were hardest hit, likening the task of sifting through the data to “drinking out of a fire hose.”

But Ramey did say the farms seem to be moving in the state from east to west, meaning the total acres in farms in western Ohio grew.

Operator diversity

The national ag picture shows more operator diversity than ever. The 2007 census counted nearly 30 percent more female principal farm operators than in 2002, and the number of Hispanic farmers also grew by 10 percent.

Used to direct policy

So who cares about the mountain of farm information generated by the 2007 ag census? Well, pretty much everyone involved in agriculture should care, says NASS Administrator Cynthia Clark.

“It’s going to be the cornerstone of a lot of policy and decisions in the upcoming year.”

The Census of Agriculture is a complete count of the nation’s farms and the people who operate them. It’s the only source of comprehensive ag data for every county in the country.

National agriculture at a glance

More farms. There are 2,204,792 farms in the U.S., up 4 percent from 2002, and reversing a trend that started in the late 1940s.

What’s hot? Farms that grew in number since 2002 included: hay and other crop farms; aquaculture; fruits and nuts; sheep and goat farms; poultry and egg farms; and vegetable operations.

What’s not? Operations that declined included: beef operations; grain and oilseed farms; dairy farms; nursery and greenhouses; swine operations; cotton farms and tobacco farms.

You’ve come a long way, baby. This census counted more female principal farm operators than in 2002 (306,209 up from 237,819) — an increase of nearly 30 percent.

Graying of agriculture. Farmers are getting older. The average age is 57.1 years, up from 55.3 in 2002 and 50.5 in 1978. In the past five years, there was a 20 percent increase in the number of farmers over 75.

Pa. agriculture at a glance

Going up. The number of farms increased by 9 percent to 63,163 farms.

Big business. In 2007, Pa. farms sold $5.8 billion in ag products, compared to $4.3 billion in 2002.

— Pa. ranks third in the nation for direct marketing to consumers, behind California and New York. The 7,500 operations selling via direct markets is up 24 percent from 2002.

Organic sales in Pennsylvania rank fifth behind California, Washington, Oregon and Wisconsin, with New York in sixth place.

All hail, Bossy. Dairy is still the king in Pennsylvania, as milk led all sales categories with a value of $1.9 billion in 2007, followed by poultry and eggs, with a sales value of $1 billion. Cattle and calves accounted for another $556 million in sales.

Ohio agriculture at a glance

— There are 687 Ohio farms with land used for organic production, although more than a third are farms with fewer than 10 acres.

— Less than half of Ohio’s principal farm operators list farming as their primary occupation: 43% listed farming and 57% listed something other than farming.

Poultry and eggs were Ohio’s highest ag sales category, with a value of $883 million in 2007. Milk and dairy products weren’t far behind, with a value of $862 million.

The average age of Ohio’s farmer is 55.7, up from 53.8 years in 2002.

What’s a farm? The USDA defines a farm as any operation with a sale of $1,000 or more of agricultural products.


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