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The 2017 Census of Agriculture was released April 11 to much-deserved fanfare. The Census of Ag is a herculean effort undertaken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture every five years. A staff of dedicated professionals is intent on asking the right questions, in the right way, in order to paint the most accurate picture of U.S. agriculture at the time the data is collected.

One small point of reference to highlight how seriously the USDA takes the Census of Agriculture – the response rate for the 2017 Census of Agriculture was 71.8 percent.

Many studies have been conducted regarding survey-response rates. The following response rates are common, according to the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Research.

  • customer and member surveys – 5 percent to 40 percent
  • general public – 1 percent to 20 percent

The Census of Agriculture would likely be described as a hybrid of those two types. But by either definition USDA’s doggedness for collecting responses is clearly impressive. The survey results will be the source of research and discussion for years to come; we are this week digging into some of the results.

Number of ag acres shows changes

There are 2.26 billion acres in the United States.

Between 2012 and 2017 the number of acres of land in farms decreased by 14.3 million acres or 1.6 percent, to 900 million acres.

Of land in the United States, 40 percent in 2017 was producing food and fiber for U.S. and non-U.S. citizens alike. That’s the least share of U.S. land dedicated to agricultural use since the 1910 Census of Agriculture.

For those who will inevitably wonder which year had the most share of land dedicated to agricultural use, it was 1950 – with 51.1 percent of land in farms.

In 1935 the Census reported that 55.4 percent of land was dedicated to agriculture, but that data point is excluded because it occurred before the United States was re-measured in 1940.

USDA further breaks down agricultural land into four different uses.

  • Cropland
  • Woodland
  • pastureland
  • other – including farmsteads, homes, buildings, livestock facilities, ponds, roads, wasteland, etc.

In those numbers we see interesting shifts.

  • Between 2012 and 2017 acreage in cropland was the only segment to increase, by 6.7 million acres.
  • The largest decline was in pastureland-rangeland, by 14.5 million acres.
  • Acreage in woodland declined by 3.9 million acres.
  • Other agricultural uses also declined, by 2.5 million acres.
  • But despite those changes the share of agricultural land dedicated to different uses has remained fairly consistent during the past 20 years.

Moving into state-by-state analysis, Figure 3 visualizes the number of acres in agricultural land in each state, while Figure 4 demonstrates the change in agricultural land by percentage between 2017 and 2012.

The largest number of farmland acres lost were in these states.

  • Texas lost 3.1 million acres.
  • New Mexico lost 2.5 million acres.
  • Montana lost 1.6 million acres.
  • Wyoming lost 1.3 million acres.
  • California lost 1 million acres.

Five states in the Northeast saw the largest declines in ag land on a percentage basis between 2017 and 2012.

  • Rhode Island lost 18 percent of its ag land.
  • Connecticut lost 13 percent.
  • New Hampshire lost 10 percent.
  • Maine lost 10 percent.
  • Massachusetts lost 6 percent.

Meanwhile other states added agricultural farmland.

  • Georgia added 332,000 acres.
  • Indiana added 249,000 acres.
  • Nevada added 214,000 acres.
  • Florida added 183,000 acres.
  • Louisiana added 96,000 acres.

When the data by category is further disaggregated it’s easy to see that different trends impacted the number of acres in different states.

Within the cropland category these states had the largest increase in crop acreage.

  • North Dakota added 804,000 acres.
  • South Dakota added 666,000 acres.
  • Nebraska added 645,000 acres.
  • Kansas added 622,000 acres.
  • Oklahoma added 436,000 acres.
  • These states experienced the largest number of declining crop acreage.
  • Montana lost 615,000 acres.
  • New Mexico lost 150,000 acres.
  • Mississippi lost 114,000 acres.
  • Arkansas lost 105,000 acres.
  • Tennessee lost 43,000 acres.

On a percentage basis, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Montana, Mississippi and Vermont had the largest decline.

West Virginia, Arizona, New Hampshire, Hawaii and Wyoming had the largest percentage increase.

Within the pasture and rangeland category, these states experienced the largest number of declining permanent pasture acreage.

  • Texas lost 2.3 million acres.
  • New Mexico lost 1.8 million acres.
  • Wyoming lost 1.5 million acres.
  • California lost 1.4 million acres.
  • New Mexico lost 800,000 acres.

On a percentage basis, Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Connecticut and Vermont showed the largest declines.

These states had the largest increase in pasture and rangeland on both an acreage and percentage basis.

  • Nevada gained 171,000 acres.
  • Washington gained 110,000 acres.
  • Arkansas gained 65,000 acres.
  • Alaska gained 18,000 acres.

Farm production expenses decrease

Overall farm production expenses decreased by $2.5 million, a decline of 0.8 percent. That figure was primarily driven to less by a 17 percent decrease in feed costs, a 19 percent decrease in fuel costs and an 18 percent decrease in fertilizer costs.

But not all expense areas trended in the same direction.

  • Hired-labor expenses increased by $4.7 million, an increase of 17 percent.
  • Taxes increased by almost $1.9 million, an increase of 25 percent.
  • Animal prices increased by almost $3.6 million, a 9 percent increase.

Number of farms shown by size category

The number of farms in the 2017 Census of Agriculture declined in every size category except 1 to 9 acres, and 2,000 acres or more. And while the number of farms that were 2,000 acres or more only increased by 2,920 farms, an increase of 3.6 percent, the role of those larger operations continues to grow. The fewest number of farms accounting for 75 percent of the market value of agricultural products sold in 2017 decreased to a little more than 105,000 farms. To put that number in context, there were 2.04 million farms identified in the 2017 Census.

Environmental concern grows

No-till practices are now the most common tillage technique on cropland in the United States, after an 8 percent increase in 2017 as compared to 2012. Following are no-till are conservation tillage techniques, increasing by 28 percent. Conventional tillage practices were utilized on almost 25 percent fewer acres in 2017.

Beyond tillage techniques, the 2017 Census highlights that farmers are embracing a wide variety of environmental practices. Farmers increased the number of acres of cropland planted to a cover crop by almost 50 percent. The number of operations with renewable-energy devices increased by 132 percent. That huge increase was driven by large increases in the number of operations with solar panels, wind turbines, methane digesters and geo-exchange systems.

Changes reach more responders

USDA made changes to the 2017 Census of Agriculture to better capture all people involved in a farming operation.

One change related to verbiage. In the 2017 Census, USDA asked about involvement of “producers” rather than “operators” in order to more fully reflect the various roles that different people on the farm might play. In the 2017 Census, USDA also allowed survey respondents to designate more than one person as a principle operator.

New questions were also added in order to more fully capture all persons making decisions for the farm or ranch. Those are just a few of the changes, but they highlight the effort of USDA to increase the inclusivity of the survey.

The result of those changes is that despite a decline of 3.2 percent in the number of farms, the number of producers increased by 6.9 percent – largely because more farms identified multiple producers. Most of those newly identified producers are female, which gives USDA a much clearer picture of the role women play on America’s farms and ranches.

The additional areas of decision-making and the ability to designate multiple principle operators also provide a clearer image of the role of younger producers – 35 years old or younger. Further the 2017 Census added questions about new and beginning producers – 10 years or less on a farm. Those changes add richness to the census results.

With more than 6.4 million data points, the Census of Agriculture is a rich source of data that we will be combing through and analyzing for years to come.

Veronica Nigh is an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Market Intel. Visit www.fb.org/market-intel for more information.