Mar 20, 2009
More Farms, Fewer Acres Among U.S. Ag Trends

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the number of farms in the United States grew 4 percent from 2002 to 2007, while the number of acres declined.

The 2007 Census counted 2,204,792 farms in the United States, a net increase of 75,810 farms from 2002. It listed the number of acres at 922,095,840, down more than 16 million acres from 2002. The average farm shrank from 441 acres to 418 acres.

Those trends have been driven by the growth of small farms in the last five years. According to the Census, the number of farms with sales of less than $1,000 increased by 118,000 from 2002 to 2007.

Extremely large farms had a high growth rate in the same period, however. The number of farms with sales of more than $500,000 increased by 46,000, according to the Census.

New farms – those that began operation between 2003 and 2007 – tended to be smaller and have lower sales than all farms nationwide. On average, new farms had 201 acres of land and $71,000 in sales. By comparison, the average for all farms in the United States was 418 acres and $135,000 in sales, according to the Census.

Operators of new farms were more likely to be engaged in occupations other than farming and to derive income from non-farm sources. The percentage of principal operators who reported farming as their primary occupation was 33 percent for new farm operators, while the average for all principal farm operators was 45 percent, according to the Census.

The Census laid out other demographic statistics:

There is growing ethnic and racial diversity among U.S. farm operators, and the percentage of women is up. There were 306,209 female principal operators counted in 2007, up from 237,819 in 2002 – an increase of almost 30 percent.

The average age of farmers continues to rise, from 55.3 in 2002 to 57.1 in 2007. The number of operators 75 years and older grew by 20 percent, while the number of operators under 25 years of age decreased 30 percent.

Of the 2.2 million farms nationwide, only 1 million show positive net cash income from the farm operation. The remaining 1.2 million farms depend on non-farm income to cover farm expenses.

Vegetables, potatoes and melons

At first glance, it looks like the number of vegetable farms and acres in the United States exploded between 2002 and 2007. Vegetable farms went from 54,391 to 69,172 in that period, while acreage went from 3.6 million to 4.6 million, according to the Census.

Those numbers are deceptive, however. Potatoes, sweet potatoes and ginseng were not counted in the vegetable category in 2002, but were counted that way in 2007. That explains much of the increase.

From 2002 to 2007, U.S. potato acreage shrank from 1.26 million to 1.13 million, while the number of farms growing potatoes grew from 9,408 to 15,014. Sweet potato acres grew from 92,310 to 105,284, while farm numbers shrank from 2,366 to 1,910, according to the Census.

Tomatoes also were reclassified. A distinction was made between tomatoes grown in the open and tomatoes grown in greenhouses. Between 2002 and 2007, farms growing tomatoes in the open grew from 19,539 to 25,809, while national acreage shrank from 448,500 to 442,225. In the greenhouse category, 2,926 farms grew tomatoes under glass or other protection in 2007, with a value of more than $393 million, according to the Census.

Also new for 2007, non-bearing asparagus acres were not reported, which partially explains the decline in acres from 74,987 in 2002 to 43,010 in 2007. The number of farms shrank from 2,987 to 2,605 in the same period, according to the Census.

Contributing to the overall trend of decreasing acres and increasing farm numbers, watermelon acreage shrank from 164,525 to 142,359, while the number of farms grew from 10,121 to 12,808, according to the Census.

Fruits and berries

The number of farms growing sweet cherries grew slightly between 2002 and 2007, from 8,043 to 8,051, while acreage grew from 91,735 to 100,705. The number of tart cherry farms grew from 2,955 to 3,028, while acreage grew from 47,138 to 49,561, according to the Census.

In 2007, there were 9,991 farms growing tame blueberries in the United States, on 77,150 acres. As for wild blueberries (the vast majority of them grown in Maine), there were 907 farms and 45,763 acres. There were no statistics for 2002.

Agritourism

Agritourism and farm-direct marketing were represented by at least two groups of statistics. In one table covering income from farm-related sources, 23,350 farms claimed to receive income from “agritourism and recreational services” in 2007, for a total value of $566.8 million (averaged to $24,276 per farm). The number of farms was down from 28,016 in 2002, but profits were up quite a bit, from $202.1 million ($7,217 average per farm), according to the Census.

Another table covered the “value of agricultural products sold directly to individuals for human consumption.” According to that, 136,817 farms made more than $1.2 billion from direct food sales in 2007 (for an average of $8,853 per farm). In 2002, it was 116,733 farms making $812 million (for an average of $6,958 per farm), according to the Census.

Organic

Organic product sales in 2007 totaled $1.7 billion, divided among 18,211 farms. Organic crops, including nursery and greenhouse crops, accounted for about 1.1 billion of those dollars. Organic crops were harvested from more than 1.2 million acres in 2007, while about half that number of acres was in transition, according to the Census.

The average age of organic farmers was 53.2, according to the Census. That number concerned Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. In 2001, OFRF concluded that the average age of organic farmers was 47. Scowcroft was hoping the average age would still be in the 40s, but organic farmers appear to be aging as fast as other farmers, if not faster. That’s surprising, considering all the young faces you see at organic conferences, he said.

The 2007 Census covered organic agriculture to a greater degree than any previous Census. The new attention will help the industry track long-term trends, and could be important for research, Scowcroft said.

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