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Census: Farmers getting older, fewer in number

The 2012 Census of Agriculture shows the number of U.S. farms is dropping, but the amount of farmland acreage is holding steady. Production value, farmers' age and minority ownership are all increasing.

By Eric Mortenson

Capital Press

Published on February 20, 2014 4:28PM

Last changed on February 21, 2014 10:22AM

Wheat is harvested at Johnson Farms in Tyhee, Idaho, Aug. 2. Preliminary figures released from the 2012 Census of Agriculture show American farmers are getting older, and fewer in number.

John O’Connell/Capital Press

Wheat is harvested at Johnson Farms in Tyhee, Idaho, Aug. 2. Preliminary figures released from the 2012 Census of Agriculture show American farmers are getting older, and fewer in number.

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The number of Pacific Northwest and California farms continues to drop and farmers are getting older, according to preliminary figures from the 2012 Census of Agriculture.

But farmland is holding steady, production value jumped significantly and the number of minority farm operators is rising.

Meanwhile, the number of women who are farms’ principal operators dropped after rising sharply in the previous Census, and young farmers disappeared in droves – especially in Oregon.

Those are among the highlights of the census, which is conducted every five years and provides both a statistical snapshot of U.S. agriculture and hints of emerging trends. Release of the 2012 report was delayed by the government shutdown in October, which USDA statistician Dave Losh said came at the “worst possible time” for those who were rushing to compile the information.

“It’s kind of like if you’re late for a meeting and there’s a wreck on the freeway,” Losh told the Oregon Board of Agriculture during a briefing Thursday in Salem. The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service also found more farmers reluctant to provide information this time, said Losh, the statistician for Oregon.

“The sentiment about government in general did not help our cause with some folks,” he said.

Nationally, the 2.1 million American farms represents a 4.3 percent decrease from 2007 to 2012, and the amount of farmland, 915 million acres, decreased 0.8 percent.

The number of Oregon farms, 35,439, dropped 8.1 percent from the previous census, but farmland loss was only 0.6 percent.

Jim Johnson, land-use specialist for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said consolidation is a factor in the drop in farm numbers. In addition, some small farms on the edges of urban areas have ceased operations as cities grow, he said.

“When you look at the land base, we’re still doing better than the national average,” Johnson told the ag board.

The number of farms in Washington, 37,249, decreased 5.2 percent, while farmland decreased 1.5 percent.

Idaho and California partially bucked the trend.

The number of Idaho farms, 24,814, fell by 2.1 percent, but the amount of farmland increased 2.3 percent compared to the 2007 Census.

In California, the number of farms, 77,864, decreased by 4 percent but the amount of land being farmed increased by slightly less than one percent.

The average age of U.S. farmers has been increasing for the past 30 years, and the 2012 Census shows that trend continuing. The statistic is significant because of its impact on farm succession and the changes that might come as farmland changes hands due to death or retirement.

The U.S. average age for principal operators is 58.3 years old. California’s average farmer is 60.1; Oregon 59.6; Washington 58.8; and Idaho 57.6. Also in Oregon, the 65- to 74-year-old age group is the second largest, and has increased 139 percent since the 2002 Census.

Older farmers aren’t being replaced at an even pace. Nationally, the number of farmers age 25 to 34 increased 2.3 percent over the 2007 Census, and the number of farmers under 25 decreased 9.8 percent. Oregon lost farmers in both age categories: Farmers under 25 dropped 15.6 percent, and those 25 to 34 decreased 11.2 percent.

The number of women who are principal operators took a curious drop in 2012, falling 5.9 percent nationally and 15 percent in Oregon after spiking in the 2007 Census. Losh, the USDA statistician said it’s not clear why the most recent Census shows there are fewer women in charge.

Minority farm ownership continues to increase. The 2012 Census shows farmers of Hispanic or Latino origin now operate than 67,000 farms nationally, an increase of nearly 12,000 in just five years. Hispanic or Latino operators now farm nearly 21 million acres nationally.

Ownership by Native American, Alaska native, Asian and African American farmers also increased in the latest Census.

The market value of American crop and livestock production increased 33 percent to almost $395 billion in the 2012 Census. Washington and Idaho production values increased 34 percent and 37 percent, respectively. California leads the nation with a market value of $42.6 billion, a 25 percent increase over 2007. The market value of Oregon’s production increased 11.3 percent.


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