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Farmers Got Older, Income Fell, Ag Census Data Shows

Producers got older, more females were principal growers, and farms got bigger while the average per-farm income declined between 2012 and 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture that was released on Thursday.

The census is conducted and released every five years and attempts to give a snapshot of farm size, demographics, conservation efforts, and income and expenses.

“While the current picture shows a consistent trend in the structure of U.S. agriculture, there are some ups and downs since the last census as well as first-time data on topics such as military status and on-farm decision making,” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue said in a statement Thursday.

Age and Gender

The average farmer was 58.6 years old in 2017, and while that’s up slightly from 58.3 years old in 2012, it shows the increase in age slowed. Between 2007 and 2012, the average age of a grower increased by 1.2 years and between 2002 and 2007, it increased by 1.8 years.

The 0.3-year uptick in the five years through 2017 was the smallest gain since the period that ended in 1982, according to government data.

More farmers were women as 1.23 million were the principal operators in 2017, up from 969,672 in 2012 and the first time the figure has topped the 1 million mark.

Men still dominated the field with 2.17 million being the principal operator. That figure, however, fell for a second straight census, the USDA said.

In a new category, the census showed that 370,819 farmers served in the Armed Forces, while 3.03 million never served.

Farm Size, Income, and Expenses

U.S. farms got bigger and input costs are rising while incomes declined. There were 2.04 million farms in the country encompassing 900.2 million acres, down from 2.11 million farms and 914.5 million acres five years earlier, the government said.

Farm sizes increased with the average rising to 441 acres, up from 434 acres in 2012 and the biggest since 2002.

Income from operations, meanwhile, ticked down from the previous census. The average farm earned $43,053 in 2017, down from a record $43,750 in 2012, the USDA said. 

Part of the decrease was due to rising expenses. Growers spent an average of $159,821 on production, up from $155,947 in 2012. Producers only spent an average of $109,359 in 2007, according to government data.

The good news for farmers, however, is that government payments also grew. The average payment per farm jumped 40% to $13,908 in 2017. That’s the highest since at least 1987.

Most producers were owner-operators with 1.92 million farms using 547.8 million acres owned, while 616,954 farmers were rented or leased encompassing 352.5 million acres.

Farms by Commodity, Average Farm Size

The types of crops farmers are producing also is changing.

The number of corn farms plunged to 304,801 in 2017 encompassing about 84.7 million harvested acres of farmland, the USDA said. That’s down from 348,530 farms but up from 84.4 million acres in 2012, an indicator that farm sizes are growing.

The number of wheat farms in the U.S. declined dramatically, falling 29% to 104,792 in 2017. Acreage plunged accordingly, declining 21%, which is another indication that acres-per-farm are increasing.

Soybean acres in 2017, however, jumped to 90.1 million from only 76.1 million five years earlier, and the number of farms growing the oilseeds rose to 303,191 from 302,963, the agency said in its report.

A similar shift is being seen in livestock as the number of farms dedicated to cattle declined in the five years through 2017 while more producers went to hogs.

Cattle were being produced on 882,692 farms in the U.S. in 2017, down from 913,246 in 2012, the USDA said. Inventory of cattle and calves, however, rose to 93.6 million head, an increase of 4.1%. The number of hog farms rose to 66,439, a 5% increase, while inventories jumped 9.6% in five years to 72 million.

Conservation and ownership

Growers left idle or planted cover crops on 36 million acres in 2017, down only slightly from the 36.4 million acres they seeded in 2012, the USDA said. In both years, the amount of land left idle or seeded with cover crops accounted for only 4% of total land used for farm products.

Cover crop acreage alone, however, jumped to 15.4 million from 10.3 million in 2012, according to the government. 

The number of acres enrolled in conservation or wetlands reserve, farmable wetlands, or conservation enhancement programs declined to 23 million from 27.5 million in 2012, the report said. 

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