DeKALB – Bob Johnson believes local figures will match the national trend of fewer but slightly larger farms identified in a government survey released this week.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s agricultural census, the number of U.S. farms dropped to 2.1 million in 2012, a decrease of about 4 percent from five years earlier. At the same time, some of the big farms got bigger: The average farm grew from 418 to 434 acres.
“That’s been a trend for a long time,” said Johnson, a third-generation DeKalb County farmer. “As technology improves, allowing people to be more productive, there’s an economy of scale.”
American agriculture has experienced a boom, with market values of crops, livestock and total agricultural products reaching record highs even as the amount of U.S. farmland declined, according to the survey.
Taken every five years and released Thursday, the agricultural census shows some growth in nontraditional elements of agriculture. Although the industry is still overwhelmingly white, there’s been a rise in the number of minority-operated farms.
And there are more farms in New England and many states in the Mountain West, while that number has declined in many states in traditional farm country.
All told, U.S. farms sold nearly $395 billion in products in 2012, a third more than five years earlier. That averaged to about $187,000 a farm – or an increase of $52,000 over 2007 totals.
That’s one reason Malta-area farmer Mike Schweitzer believes some younger family members have returned to the farm.
“There’s been some prosperity in the past few years and it has drawn a younger population back to the farm,” Schweitzer said.
With a degree from the University of Illinois and after a few years working as a contractor, Schweitzer said he returned, first as a hired hand. Ultimately, he formed a limited partnership with his father, Paul, who has been farming since 1972.
“We’ve been in transition for a few years. He’s looking to retire and I’m taking a more active role as the farm manager,” Schweitzer said.
Although most of farm country is getting older – the average farmer is 58.3 years old – more people younger than 34 are trying their hand at farming. Schweitzer is 31.
The biggest hurdle for those who want to continue in the family business, according to Johnson, is just the practical matter of supporting another family.
“When you add another family, you have to get bigger and more productive,” Johnson said. “I assure you, there are a lot of young folks who would like to go back to the family farm.”
Until the older generation is ready to retire, many younger people take jobs in other sectors of the ag industry, such as selling seed or fertilizer.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the small boost in the number of younger farmers – around 2 percent – is partly because of increased interest and government support for locally grown foods and a thriving export market. Many younger farmers work at smaller operations, where the good farm economy and a rising consumer interest in where food is grown have helped them.
He said he wants farm country to “be aggressive” about recruiting and retaining younger people, as a third of farmers were older than 65 in 2012.
“The reality is, over time those folks won’t be able to continue farming, and the question for all of us is, if they don’t, who will?” Vilsack said after the report was released.
Vilsack has made the revitalization of rural America a priority at USDA. As people have moved to suburbs and cities, many communities have increasing poverty and fewer young people to take over family farms. He has also argued that the dwindling population has led to less political clout – made evident by a recent three-year congressional struggle to enact a new farm bill. President Barack Obama signed the bill, which provides farm subsidies and food stamps, into law earlier this month.
Vilsack said he is most concerned about the survival of middle-sized farms, which declined in the past five years. The number of larger and smaller farms mostly held steady.
He said he believes that decline partly came from a lapse in disaster assistance while Congress haggled over the farm bill, drought in many states and rising feed costs. Ideally, he said, many of the younger farmers who are working on smaller farms will eventually expand their operations.
Although the national data was released by the USDA, state and county breakdowns won’t be available until May.
• The Associated Press contributed to this report.
By the numbers
The 2012 ag census also found:
• Most U.S. farms are small: 75 percent had sales of less than $50,000 in 2012.
• New England, Texas, Florida and many states in the Mountain West saw increases in the number of farms and some saw an increase in farmland.
• The 10 states with the most farms are Texas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, California, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Only Ohio is new to the list since the 2007 census.