Census shows trends in agriculture

David Phillips
Reflections from My Notebook

The census of agriculture doesn’t get the same attention as the U.S. census, but the most recent census for 2017, released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently, shows some trends that mirror more general trends.

For example, agriculture is consolidating, much like business in general.

The number of farms in Minnesota decreased from 80,992 in 2007 to 68,822 in 2017. Yet, the amount of farmland dropped just 5 percent as the average size of farms increased 11.7 percent to an average of 371 acres per farm.

Consolidation of dairy and pork is even more dramatic.

There are just 3,562 dairy farms left in Minnesota, yet the number of milk cows is nearly the same as in 2007. The number of farms that sell hogs and pigs numbered 3,225 in 2017 in Minnesota, a decrease of 25 percent since 2007, yet the number of hogs and pigs sold is 27.23 million, which is an increase of 19.3 percent.

Just like mid-size businesses, the middle class and the middle in politics, agriculture is seeing a hollowing out of the middle as farms are becoming either very large or very small.

The number of farms just one to nine acres has grown 42 percent in Minnesota since 2007. On the other hand, farms 2,000 acres or more have grown nearly 17 percent while farms of 1,000 to 1,999 acres have grown modestly. All categories in the middle — between nine and 1,000 acres — have declined.

Just as females have taken lead roles in other occupations, they have made significant strides in agriculture. Although the methodology of the census has changed so an exact comparison can’t be made, the number of females has increased significantly. In Minnesota, they make up 31 percent of all farm producers.

One area where diversity hasn’t made an impact, which is a cause for concern, is in age. Well over half of Minnesota’s farmers are over the age of 55 with nearly a third over the age of 65.

That is a trend seen in other area independent businesses, including the trades, as many baby boomers are looking to retire, but there aren’t enough young people interested, or financially able, to take over operations.

Another concerning trend in agriculture is the number of producers who work off the farm. The census lists more Minnesota ag producers with a primary occupation other than farming. A total of 44,138 of Minnesota’s 111,760 producers work more than 200 days off the farm while another 22,231 work at least one day off the farm.

That trend mirrors the reduction in mom and pop stores where one family could make a living in a small, local business. Often, a spouse works elsewhere to supplement income, or more importantly, to get insurance coverage.

The census, which is conducted every five years, has many fascinating breakdowns. For example, the number of organic farms, which the census started counting in 2012, has increased 23 percent in the last five years.

The number of renewable energy producing systems, which also became part of the census five years ago, has more than doubled. The number of solar systems has nearly tripled while geothermal/geoexchange systems have more than doubled. And, yes, wind farms have also increased, as have farms with wind rights leased to others.

Although county data is available, historical breakdowns won’t be released until next month, so local trends aren’t exactly known, although they would seem to follow the state trends.

The history of collecting data on U.S. agriculture dates back as far as President George Washington, who kept meticulous statistical records describing his own and other farms. In 1791, President Washington wrote to farmers requesting information on land values, crop acreages, crop yields, livestock prices, and taxes.

In 1839, Congress appropriated $1,000 for “carrying out agricultural investigations, and procuring agricultural statistics.” The first agriculture census was taken in 1840 as part of the sixth decennial census of population. As the country expanded and agriculture evolved, the census interval was changed to every five years starting after the 1920 U.S. census.

Although agriculture is a key component of our local economy, that isn’t necessarily the case nationally, which is why the agriculture census doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Farmers comprise just 2 percent of the U.S. population.

Still, that’s not to say it shouldn’t get the attention, particularly relating to trends that raise concern about the future of agriculture. After all, 100 percent of families in the United States depend on farmers for their food.