Census of Agriculture: Information on Everything Agriculture

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Once every five years the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service conducts the Census of Agriculture.  The census is conducted in years ending in a “2” or “7”.  It takes time to compile all of the information they collect into an accurate and usable format which means the 2017 Census data is hot off the press in April of 2019.  For those of us who like data, the census is a bit of a gift.  We often hear rumors that XYZ type of agriculture is expanding that some other type of operation is declining but as someone that likes facts to back up such rumors, this information is very useful.  Other information is available annually or quarterly from other sources but the Census of Ag information is more comprehensive than most other sources.  I have a few questions that I’ll be addressing over the coming months by digging into the data and you will see some summaries of what I find in future blog posts. For today, I am going to highlight one tidbit that caught my attention in my first glance at the new census.

Farm Size: The acres defined as “Land in Farms” is down about 1.5 million acres from 2012 to a total of 58.1 million acres.  The average farm sized increased slightly over the past five years to 2,149.  If you read my last blog post about averages you’ll know that averages sometimes don’t tell the whole story.  This is one of those situations.  Since 1997, the number of farms has decreased by about 500 while the land in farms has declined by about 300,000 acres.  The summary census report categorizes farms by size (1 to 9 acres, and 10 to 50 acres, etc.)  The table below compares the number of farms in each category to the 1997 census numbers.  You might notice the only categories that have more farms are under 50 acres.  This certainly points to the popularity of small farm properties but these numbers hide another important trend. 

 Number of Farms 2017 1997 % Change
1 to 9 acres 2,516 1,195 111%
10 to 49 acres 5,836 4,673 25%
50 to 179 acres 4,332 4,414 -2%
180 to 499 acres 3,570 4,032 -11%
500 to 999 acres 2,210 3,067 -28%
1,000 to 1,999 acres 2,246 3,382 -34%
2,000 or larger 6,338 6,869 -8%

Let’s assume the every farm is the maximum size for the category it is reported under.  Based on this assumption a 5 acre property would be assumed to be 9 acres.  This assumption will create a maximum acreage for each size grouping of farms.  Then let’s assume that all remaining acres are in the 2,000 acre and over category.  By doing this we notice two very different types of operations are managing more acres.  First the very small farms (under 50 acres) in total have expanded by roughly 70,000 statewide.  Farms ranging in size from 50 to 1,999 acres are collectively managing about 3.0 to 3.5 million fewer acres.  Although there are 500 fewer farms of 2,000 acres or more, they are collectively managing about 3.0 to 3.5 million additional acres.   The assumptions I utilized will underestimate the shift toward acres managed by farms of over 2,000 acres.  I wonder what these numbers will be in 2022.

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Joel Schumacher

Joel Schumacher, an extension economics associate specialist in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics at Montana State University. Much of his research has focused on understanding the economics and public policy implications of small and community scale alternative energy projects. Joel also researches and provides extension training in retirement planning, saving and investing. Helping Montanans stay up to date on the ever changing laws and regulations affecting consumer issues is an interesting and challenging area.

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