Census panic: The many faces of agriculture

Farm Forum

The 2012 Census of Agriculture was supposed to be completed and submitted by February 4, 2013. Some farmers told me they cussed at the extensive forms they were asked to complete.

One person wondered why “the government” needed to know the information that was requested.

I completed and mailed a hard copy of the census about three weeks ago. I too found some questions difficult to answer. I will probably get a telephone call or an email request for clarification of some of my answers.

A census of U.S. agriculture is undertaken every five years. Contrary to what some people believe, it is not used to track down violations or violators of laws.

The Census of Agriculture is a highly valuable aid to policymakers, researchers, agricultural suppliers, and many other users. I access it frequently.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated the census “is one of the most important tools for providing certainty to producers and sustaining the unlimited economic potential of rural America.”

The census is used to gauge the needs of farmers for federal assistance programs such as crop insurance, and rural communities’ needs for infrastructure, such as shipping routes. The census enables researchers and administrators to determine the changing demographic and economic trends in farming.

The Census of Agriculture documents changes occurring in agriculture, dating back to the beginning of the country. For example, a USDA News Release on January 17, 2013 (No. 0012.13) indicated that over the past 20 years the average age of U.S. farmers increased from 50.3 years in 1987 to 57.1 in 2007.

The news release goes on to say “while the majority of farm operators are between the age of 45 and 64, the fastest growing group of farm operators is those 65 years and older.” Gee, I’m in this group!

The U.S. had 2,204,792 farms, averaging 418 acres in 2007, which is down from the 1992 farm average of 491 acres. What is going on?

Residential/lifestyle farms are increasing lately. These are acreages on which people want to keep their farming roots, raise a few animals, and have enough room for privacy.

The definition of a farm is any agricultural enterprise that produces $1,000 or more from the sale of products raised during a year or which would earn at least $1,000 if the land were not in a diversion such as the Conservation Reserve Program.

In 1900 there were 5,737,372 U.S. farms (United State Census Office, Census Reports, Volume V, Agriculture, 1902). At that time 36% of the U.S. population of 76.4M persons was involved in agriculture.

In 2007 just 2% of Americans (3.28M farm operators and 2.64M hired laborers) produced over five times as much goods. Workers in agriculture-related occupations, such as truckers, veterinarians and food processors are not included in these figures.

Approximately 1.90M of 2.20M primary operators were males and .3M of the primary operators were females; 621K of the secondary operators were females and 311K of the secondary operators were males. Females are increasingly integral to farm operations.

While organic farms comprise the fastest growing type of farming operation, the 18,211 organic farms in 2007 constituted .8% of all farms. Organic farms were about half the size of the average U.S. farm and earned $93,856 apiece, in comparison to the average of $134,807 for all farms. How organic agriculture fared in 2012 will be interesting to learn.

What are the leading agricultural states? California led the nation in agricultural receipts in 2007, earning $34B in cash income. Texas followed at $21B and Iowa was close, ranking third, at $20.4B in total farm income.

Despite many different approaches to farming in the U.S. and around the world, I have been impressed as I traveled that farmers everywhere share more similarities than differences. To illustrate, a farmer in Missouri usually has more in common with a farmer in Spain, than a Princeton, Missouri farmer has with a banker in Kansas City. Farmers everywhere understand each other.

Mary Swander, Iowa’s poet laureate, has captured the many different faces of farming in her 2012 book, Farmscape: The Changing Rural Environment. A native of Manning, Iowa, Ms. Swander is Distinguished Professor in the English Department at Iowa State University.

Mary’s book is about the creation of a play she and students in her Masters of Fine Arts course, Creative Writing and Environment, wrote in the fall of 2007. The play and her book have won much positive acclaim.

Many folks in the Midwest have attended one or more of its traveling performances or perhaps participated as actors. The play can be scheduled for a production by contacting Ms. Swander through her website: http://www.maryswander.com .

Farmscape celebrates the diversity and strengths of Midwestern farmers, including large grain and livestock feedlot operators, community supported agriculture producers, vintners, diversified organic farmers, and small-sized conventional family farmers, to name a few.

The 2012 Census of Agriculture wasn’t so bad, was it?

Dr. Rosmann lives at Harlan, Iowa.