Farmers make up a tiny but extremely important part of our population. We all depend on the food, fuel and feed that they produce. If you are one of those farmers, thank you for what you do. Even though this is probably a very busy time of year for you, there is something you really need to do. The USDA has extended the deadline for participating in the 2022 Census of Agriculture until May 31st and they want to know about you and your operation (you can find the link to fill out your entry here). As Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture puts it, “this is your voice.” If you aren’t a farmer but know one, it would be good to encourage their participation.
The reason this matters is because the information that is gathered through this census every five years serves a wide range of useful purposes (see this video).
- It gives society a window on a tiny but critical and largely unfamiliar part of our society
- Producers can use the information to benchmark their operation and make informed decisions about production methods and marketing
- Legislators use the data to shape policy and key legislation such as the Farm Bill
- Agencies like the USDA use the data guide their research and various programs
- Private companies that serve the farming community find valuable information for their planning processes
- Public and private researchers and NGOs use the data in their research and initiatives
- It is an invaluable resource for journalists or “agcovates” who seek to address myths and other disinformation about the farming sector
Who Qualifies As A Farmer?
Anyone who raises or sells at least $1,000 worth of animals, crops or other farm products can be counted, thus the census covers the full range from large rural farms to small urban operations. A great many of the farmers across that size spectrum only do farming part time or get a lot of their income from an off-farm job. Many of the people involved in farming are just one of many “operators” involved with the farm or ranch, but the census seeks to include all of those players. There are a great many “beginning farmers” some of whom are part of a new generation and some of whom have started farming in retirement or as a side interest. If you are a new farmer, you can sign up to participate here.
This census isn’t just about some classical “Norman Rockwell” image of a farmer – the goal is to track the diverse and dynamic population that does this work.
What Sort Of Information Is Gathered?
The census gathers information about land ownership, rental and land use which is very important because only a landowner can really make the sort of long-term commitments needed for something like a carbon sequestration contract. The census also tracks the characteristics of the operators – their age, gender, and role in the farming operation. Important sustainable production practices are tracked such as tillage system, use of cover crops, rotations etc. The census also captures information about farm income and expenditures. There are no privacy concerns with this process – the information is FOIA protected and cannot be used for tax, investigative or regulatory purposes and it is only ever presented in anonymized, aggregate form.
Agricultural data has been collected as part of the regular US Census since 1840, but since 1997 the agricultural part has been done by the USDA. Unfortunately, participation has been declining slightly over time. In 2007 78.6% of farmers participated. The number was down to 74.6% in 2012 and 71.8% in 2017. The agency is still able to make whole industry estimates using modeling methods to fill in for the missing data, but it would be better to restore a higher rate of participation.
What Can Be Learned From The Census?
For one thing, the farming community is on the older end of the spectrum with ten times as many participants over 75 years of age than in the general population. The average age has been increasing slowly from 56.3 years in 2012 to 57.8 in 2017.
The following links are to a few of the highlights based on the most recent, 2017 census and these will be updated soon based on the 2022 results.
Ownership and size: 96% of all US farms are family-owned and 88.1% were classified as “small” with a gross cash farm income of less than $350,000 while only 2.6% were classified as large and very large.
Beginning farmers: 908,274 producers had farmed for 10 years or less in 2017 (27% of the 3.4 million producers in the US), and 26% of those were under 35 – a demographic that represents only 8% of all US farmers
Tillage: No-till is a sort of gold standard for sustainable or regenerative row crop farming and the best option for long-term carbon sequestration in farmed soils. Between 2012 and 2017 the number of acres under no-till increased by 8% to more than 100 million acres and the area under intensive tillage declined by 35%
Female Producers: There were 1.2 million female producers in the US in 2017 – 36% of the total. That was a 27% increase from 2012
It will be very interesting to see the average for 2022 when that data is published in 2024. Let’s hope it can be based on the most complete sampling possible.