In January 2018 every American who is defined as a farmer by the IRS was asked to complete the 2017 Census of Agriculture. Conducted every five years, the Census included anyone who earned more than a $1,000 from farming activities in 2017, such as raising crops and/or livestock, or from non-farming alternatives such as the Conservation Reserve Program.
Data released by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) thus far include the major findings for the nation and by state; many more distillations will follow. Census figures which were released in April and May this year indicated that U.S. farm income in 2017 was $388.5 billion, down from $394.6 billion in 2012. The total number of farming operations declined from 2.11 million in 2012 to 2.04 million in 2017.
These statistics don’t surprise people who pay attention to agriculture. There also was a 6.9 percent increase from 2012 to 2017 of female agricultural producers, despite a declining number of farms.
The USDA keeps track of first and second operators of farms. In 2017 there were 1.2 million females who either managed their farms as first operators or were designated as second operators of their family farms. These women were usually integrally involved in all aspects of the farm, including field work and management decisions.
According to NASS, both small and large farms increased, while mid-size farms, which are mainly family-sized operations, declined. This doesn’t surprise farmers and rural communities, but it is not what many Americans wish were taking place in agriculture.
Others, however, view this as an economic opportunity to expand or to enter farming as a career. Changes in the agricultural population have been occurring since the first Census in Agriculture was undertaken in 1840.
There are less well known and unexpected Ag Census facts too. Although people engaged in agriculture comprise less than 2% of the U.S. population, they accounted for 11% of the total U.S. military personnel in 2017. Some 370,619 agricultural producers had served or were serving in the U.S. military in 2017.
Also unexpected, the top states for beginning farmers were Alaska (46%), followed by a plethora of states with 30% or so of their farmers as beginners. More beginners label themselves as organic producers than in the past.
California was again the top-producing agricultural state in 2017, followed by Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Illinois, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Indiana, in that order. North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington are close to entering the top ten states, as agriculture in the U.S. moves incrementally northward.
The top five 2017 commodities overall were beef, corn, poultry and eggs, soybeans, and dairy, in that order. In 2012, corn was the third most valuable agricultural commodity. As ethanol production has increased, corn has become the second most valuable agricultural commodity.
Organic farm products comprised 4% of the food consumed in the U.S. last year, according to USDA reports, although less than 1% of farmed land was certified as organic. Organic producers are younger, more likely to be female, and are increasing, in comparison to the overall population of U.S. farmers.
Demand for organically-produced foods and fibers is growing rapidly, which is why 70% of major grocery stores now have organic food sections, whereas two decades ago organic foods were seldom available outside of farmer markets and specialty stores.
According to consumer surveys by non-governmental organizations, consumption of organic fruits and vegetables in 2017 increased by 6.4% from 2016, which was less than in recent years, but consumption of organically labeled meats, dairy and eggs increased by more than 17% in 2017, in comparison to 2016.
The 2017 Ag Census reflects mostly the demographic characteristics of farmers and their operations, and less about their psychosocial well-being. As a periodic consultant to the USDA and several federal agencies, I know however, that these statisticians and scientists are deeply concerned about the overall well-being of agricultural producers. I would sum up their concerns in three areas.
First and foremost, they are concerned about issuing data and reports that are accurate. Secondly, they want U.S. agricultural producers to be profitable and to remain healthy so that farmers can feed consumers in the U.S. and beyond our borders.
Thirdly, they are concerned about the intrusion of politics into agriculture more formidably than perhaps ever before, but they seek to refrain from offering political opinions themselves. They take stances that are apolitical, even if the administrators of their departments hold strongly political views.
Recently I provided workshops to USDA Farm Service Agency staff at two different Midwestern locations. I was impressed with the dedication of the staff who attended the workshops and their concern about farmers who are dealing with many financial and personal uncertainties.
I thank the two persons who helped me with this article. They know who they are.
Dr. Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa psychologist and farm owner. Contact him at: email@example.com.