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Ag Census partly finished

USDA released preliminary data from its five-year, 2012 Census of Agriculture Thursday that showed a 4.3% decline in the number of U.S. farms, to 2.1 million and a leveling off of the loss of farmland.

Speaking at the Agricultural Outlook Forum in Arlington, Virginia, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack cautioned against making too many comparisons with older surveys because the new one has more rigorous standards.

It's also late. Vilsack said that the full report won't be released until this spring, due to delays caused by the federal government's budget sequester and the government shutdown last fall.

The Census showed an increase in the number of younger farmers, age 25 to 34. There were 106,735 in 2007 and 109,146 in 2012. However, that wasn't a big enough jump to counter the trend of an aging farm population. The average age of U.S. farmers increased to 58.3, continuing the direction of the past 30 years.

Vilsack said that a significant number of farmers are 75 or older.

"The question for all of us is, if they can't who will?" said Vilsack.

Vilsack said that he's most concerned about the fate of medium sized farms.

"Very small operations or very large operations have held steady or increased," he said. The growth of regional food systems and consumer interest in locally-grown food is encouraging more small farms, which are often an entry point for young farmers, he said. The USDA needs to work to continue improving exports that benefit the large commercial operations, he said. And the development of rural, biobased industries could help those medium-sized farms by providing both jobs and markets for new crops, he said.

Vilsack said the response to the Census was down from 2007, perhaps because it was taken during the drought of 2012.

"It may also be that people were genuinely concerned about the use of the information," Vilsack said. It can only be used by USDA to help develop agricultural policy in the future, he said.

The Census also showed an increase in farming by several ethnic groups, with the largest growth by Hispanic farmers, from 55,570 to 67,014. The number of women farm operators declined, from 306,209 to 288,269. More preliminary data is at the Ag Census website.

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