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More farms in U.S. for first time in 60+ years, ag census shows

Agriculture.com Staff 02/05/2009 @ 8:17am

There are more farms in the U.S. than there were five years ago. It's the first time that's been the case in the last six decades.

That's just one of the key findings of the 2007 USDA Agriculture Census, the results of which were released Wednesday.

"There was no surprise in the 2007 Ag Census that U.S. agriculture has grown since the last count was made in 2002. But a major surprise was the fact that the number of farms has increased, reversing a 60-year trend," says Stu Ellis of the University of Illinois Extension Farm Gate. "The typical farmer is growing older, but has more sales. The commodity farms that produce corn, beans, cattle and hogs have declined in number to make way for farms producing vegetables, fruits, aquaculture and specialty animals."

While overall farm numbers climbed by 4% (the definition of a farm entails the sale of at least $1,000 in ag products), the trend wasn't across the board.

"Operations that declined included beef enterprises, grain and oilseed farms, dairy farms, nursery and greenhouses, swine operations, cotton farms and tobacco farms," Ellis says. "Operations that grew in number compared to 2002 included hay and other crop farms, aquaculture, fruits and nuts farms, sheep and goat farms, poultry and egg farms and vegetable operations."

Overall, USDA numbers show there are 2,204,792 farms in the U.S.

Other numbers in Wednesday's Census report continued previous trends: The number of small and large farms (sales under $1,000 or over $250,000 per year, respectively) grew and fewer than half (45%) of those responding identified farming as their primary occupation. Family farms netting more than $250,000 in annual sales raised 63% of all ag products sold but comprised only 9% of the nation's total individual farms.

Farmers were unable to turn back the clock in the last five years, and the aging trend is evident in the general farm population. The '07 census indicates the average age of farmers is just over 57 years, up almost two years on average from the '02 census and 7 years older than the 1978 census showed.

"In the past 5 years, there was a 20% increase in the number of farmers over 75 years old, and a 30% decrease in the number of farmers under 25," Ellis says.

One of the big surprises in the 2007 Ag Census is the growth in the number of women involved on the farm. The number of women comprising "principal operators" increased by almost one third.

"One of the most significant changes in the 2007 Census of Agriculture is the increase in female farm operators, both in terms of the absolute number and the percentage of all principal operators," according to the census. "There were 306,209 female principal operators counted in 2007, up from 237,819 in 2002 -- an increase of almost 30%."

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