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Rosmann: Trend toward larger farms is growing

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Rosmann: Trend toward larger farms is growing
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The number of U.S. farms was estimated by the 2012 Census of Agriculture at 2.1 million, down from 2.2 million farms five years earlier.

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The average farm size in 2012 was 434 acres, in comparison to 418 acres in 2007. The U.S. Department of Agriculture includes ranches as farms.

Many of the key census reports are becoming available as USDA statisticians release their analyses of the extensive 2012 agricultural census data supplied by farm operators in early 2013. Noteworthy findings are emerging that suggest clues about the future of U.S. agriculture.

Very small farms decreased. Reversing a trend noted in previous censuses, the number of farms earning less than $10,000 in 2012 declined from 2007.

Previously, these low-income farms were increasing in the category of lifestyle choice farms, which are sometimes called hobby farms, and among the very small agricultural producers who largely depend on other sources of income for their households.

Farms that reported gross sales receipts of $10,000-$500,000 increased slightly, but there was a substantial increase (8.6 percent) in the number of farms earning more than $500,000 in 2012. Recent high commodity prices for grains and oilseeds helped push gross farm receipts upward.

The trend toward larger farms in terms of the number of acres operated and higher income is occurring faster than many producers anticipated. The trend is emerging in all parts of the country and on most types of farms, such as crop farms, livestock operations and organic farms.

In 2012, three-quarters of all farms earned less than $50,000 from farming, and they produced 3 percent of the total value of farming sales. Those with sales of $1 million or more accrued 66 percent of farming sales on just 4 percent of the total farms.

Small operations are still defined as farms because they produce more than $1,000 in agricultural sales or receive that amount or more from the federal Conservation Reserve Program and other types of payments, such as wetland preserves.

Demographics are changing. Farmer owners in 2012 who were Asian (13,669), African American (33,371), and Native American (37,851) increased from 2007, while the number of white, non-Hispanic owners declined slightly during the same interval.

Hispanic-operated farms increased 21 percent from 2007 to 2012. The number of medium-sized farms (180-499 acres) and larger farms (500 acres or more) owned by minorities expanded more than smaller farms during the five-year interval.

The data suggest that minority producers are progressively entering the mainstream of agriculture.

Are producers of agricultural goods sold locally increasing? The data say “yes.”

Younger beginning food producers, regardless of their ethnic background, are entering farming in somewhat greater numbers than in the past, especially in community supported agriculture (CSA) operations where farmers sell their products locally to individual customers and to institutions such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes.

Many CSA farms are certified organic operations or moving toward this certification. This data confirms consumers like to support local producers they are acquainted with, and that they express a preference for vegetables, fruits, dairy, eggs and poultry that are not genetically modified organisms or raised with synthetic pesticides and manufactured fertilizers.

Organic farming receipts nearly doubled during the past five years. Organic sales reached $3.12 billion in 2012, in comparison to $1.7 billion in 2007.

Nonetheless, organic food sales accounted for only 0.8 percent of total agricultural sales. Organic foods are mainly sold directly to customers, restaurants and institutions rather than through commercial food distributors but mass markets are increasingly developing in the grocery industry.

Corn and soybeans are the major crops grown, topping 50 percent of all harvested acres in 2012 for the first time. Beef production was the main livestock enterprise in 2012; 619,172 farms (29 percent of all farms) reported raising cattle.

California led the nation in agricultural production in 2012 with agricultural sales of $42.6 billion; Iowa ranked second ($30.8 billion); Texas was third ($25.4 billion); Nebraska ranked fourth ($23.1 billion) and Minnesota was fifth ($21.3 billion).

Nine of the top 10 counties in terms of the value of agricultural goods sold were in California; Weld County in Colorado ranked ninth among all U.S. counties.

Conclusions: Farms are becoming large – no surprise. The 2012 Census of Agriculture also indicates the people producing food, fiber and renewable fuels are becoming more diverse. And, locally produced foods and organic foods are finding favor with consumers wherever they are available.

Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact him, go to www.agbehavioralhealth.com.

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