Surprise: More farms, but bulk of output still from large farms

There were more farms in the United States in 2007 — no particular surprise, since the number of smaller “hobby” farms has kept growing.

The big surprise in the USDA's latest Census of Agriculture data, taken every five years, was that the number of farms rose over the five-year period, reversing a 60-year downward trend.

There were 2,204,792 farms in 2007, up 75,810, or 4 percent, from 2002.

Despite the overall growth in farm numbers nationwide, not all states had increases; 11 reported losses, including Mississippi, Tennessee, and Georgia. Among major gainers in the South were Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina

For the USDA's survey purposes, a farm is considered any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were, or normally would be, produced and sold during the census year. These operations increased by 118,000.

But according to the census, the bulk of the nation's crops/livestock continues to be produced by fewer, larger farms.

In 2002, 75 percent of the value of production came from 144,000 farms; by 2007, that 75 percent came from only 125,000 farms. Farms with more than $1 million in yearly sales accounted for 59 percent of all U.S. agricultural production in 2007.

Of the 2.2 million farms nationwide, slightly less than half (1 million) showed a positive net cash income from the farm operation; the rest depended on non-farm income to cover farm expenses. Almost 900,000 farm operators reported working off the farm more than 200 days a year.

Most of the growth was from the smaller operations, where sales of no specific commodity accounted for more than 50 percent of the total value of production. Even though the total number of farmers increased nationwide, many individual sectors of production had declines, including grains/oilseeds, horticulture, cattle, and hogs.

Since the 2002 census, 291,329 new farms began operation; their average size was 201 acres, with an average $71,000 in sales. That compared to an average 418 acres for all U.S. farms, with an average operator age of 57.1, and sales averaging $135,000. New farms also tended to have younger operators — average age 48.

The number of operators 75 years and older grew by 20 percent, while the number of operators under 25 dropped 30 percent. Operators of larger farms, however, tended to be younger and more likely to report farming as their primary operation.

The two largest groups of farms were residential/“lifestyle” farms (36 percent) and retirement farms (21 percent). Large family farms, with sales between $250,000 and $500,000, and very large farms, with sales over $500,000, made up only 9 percent of all farms, but produced more than 63 percent of all agricultural products sold.

The survey showed growing ethnic and racial diversity among farm operators, and an increase in female operators. The largest growth in non-white operators was Hispanic, up 10 percent since 2002.

One of the most significant changes was the increase in female principal operators: 306,209 in 2007, compared to 237,819 in 2002.

Internet access on farms increased by 50 percent during the period; of those with Internet access, 68 percent had a high speed connection.

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