The Changing Face of Rural America

In almost all aspects the average US farmer seems to have become a more complex character. According to the newly released Census of Agriculture, he is becoming increasingly feminine, has greater ethnic background, is more mature and yet has a greater grasp of modern technology. Adam Anson - reporting for TheCattleSite - summarises the statistics.
calendar icon 10 February 2009
clock icon 5 minute read

The new US farmers today represent a shift in attitudes and desires, but what shadow does this farmer cast on the future of US agriculture as a whole?

Getting to Know Your Rural Neighbour

In conducting the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) says it placed a special emphasis on outreach to traditionally under-represented populations, including small, minority, female and limited resource farm operators.

The results they acquired were interesting, revealing that of the 2.2 million farms in the United States, 1.83 million have a white male principal operator. Although, the number of principal operators of all races and ethnic backgrounds has increased four per cent since 2002, the growth in the number of non-white operators has out paced this overall growth. The number of operators of Hispanic origin has increased 10 per cent since 2002, says the report.

One of the most significant changes in the 2007 Census of Agriculture is the increase in female farm operators, both in terms of the absolute number and the percentage of all principal operators. There were 306,209 female principal operators counted in 2007, up from 237,819 in 2002 – an increase of almost 30 per cent.

Significantly the changes seen in the average farmers mirror the changes made to the type of operation they ran. For example, "white farmers are more likely than non-white farmers to produce grains and oilseeds", says a report summary. "Asians and Native Hawaiians have a higher percentage of fruit and tree nut farms than other races" and "women operators are fairly equally split among three industries: cattle, calves, and feedlots; aquaculture and other livestock operations; and other crops." Cattle and calves was the most common farm type for American Indian, Black and Hispanic farmers.

Percent of Farm Operators by Race, Ethnicity and Gender<
Image: USDA

The age of the average farmer has followed an increasing trend set 30 years ago. The average age of U.S. farm operators increased from 55.3 in 2002 to 57.1 in 2007, but back in 1978 the average age of the US farmer was just 50. The number of operators 75 years and older grew by 20 per cent from 2002, while the number of operators under 25 years of age decreased 30 per cent.

Despite of this increasing age, operators are showing a modern touch too. The percentage of farm operations with Internet access has increased over the past five years, from 50 per cent in 2002 to 57 per cent in 2007.

A Tour around Their Operation

The Census also examined what kind of operations these farmers ran. "Most farms in the United States are small, with 60 per cent of all farms reporting less than $10,000 in sales of agricultural products", says the report. "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." Operators of larger farms tend to be younger, are more likely to report farming as their primary occupation, and are less likely to work off the farm.

The 2007 Census of Agriculture uses a typology that classifies farms by sales and operator’s occupation. The census shows that the two largest groups of farms are residential/lifestyle farms (36 per cent) and retirement farms (21 per cent). Most of the growth in U.S. farm numbers came from small operations, where sales of no specific commodity accounted for more than 50 per cent of the total value of production. Even though the total number of farms increased nationwide, many individual sectors of production – including grains and oilseeds, horticulture, cattle and hog operations – saw a decline in farm numbers.

Of the almost $300 billion in agricultural products sold in 2007, grains and oilseeds accounted for 26 per cent, cattle and calves for 21 per cent, poultry and eggs for 12 per cent, milk for 11 per cent, and fruits and nuts for 6 per cent.

Number of Farms by North American Industry Classification System

Image: USDA

A Look Across the US

Taking a step back from the detail, the Census also examined overall economic trends. A quick glance at these statistics indicate a fairly positive outlook for US agriculture. In the past five years since the last census was taken the total number of farms within the US grew by four per cent. According to the Census, in 2007, U.S. farms sold $297 billion in agricultural products while incurring $241 billion in production expenses. Income from sales increased 48 per cent between 2002 and 2007, while production expenses increased 39 per cent. In addition to receipts from sales, U.S. farms also received $8 billion in government payments and $10 billion in farm-related income in 2007.

Both the value of production and farm expenses associated with that production increased from 2002 to 2007. Relatively, production value increased more than expenses, resulting in an 84 per cent increase in net cash income to agricultural operations. Net cash income is the amount an operation receives from sales of agricultural products, government payments, and farm-related income after expenses are subtracted.

The value of agricultural production is concentrated in a few regions: the Midwest, the Mississippi Delta, California and the Atlantic Coast. The top five states for the value of agricultural products sold and their percentage of the total value are: California (11.4 per cent), Texas (7.1 per cent), Iowa (6.9 per cent), Nebraska (5.2 per cent) and Kansas (4.8 per cent). Fresno County in California is the largest single county in terms of agricultural products sold in 2007, with $3.7 billion, or 1.2 per cent of the total U.S. value.

Despite the overall growth in farm numbers nationwide, not all states showed an increase. Eleven states saw declines in the number of farms while 39 states saw their farm numbers increase.

"The Census of Agriculture is a valuable tool that provides the general public with an accurate and comprehensive view of American agriculture. It's also a set of benchmarks against which this Department must measure and demonstrate its performance to agriculture and the taxpayer," said Secretary Tom Vilsack, commenting on its release.

The United States Department of Agriculture says that the Census of Agriculture is a complete count of the nation's farms and ranches and the people who operate them. "It provides the only source of uniform, comprehensive agricultural data for every county in the nation."

Image: USDA


Further Reading

- You can view the full Census of Agriculture by clicking here.

February 2009


© 2000 - 2024 - Global Ag Media. All Rights Reserved | No part of this site may be reproduced without permission.