BENTON, Ill. — When the USDA released its 2012 Census of Agriculture report earlier this year, they could have used an image of former southern Illinois farmer Eddie Simmons.
Simmons fits the statistical profile of his state to a T, thanks in part to selling his 240-acre tract to buyers who own an adjacent tract in Williamson County. The land he sold two years ago was a tract the 48-year-old grew up on – a farm his grandfather took over before he was born.
"It was just time for me to make a change, and I thought it was probably as good a time as any considering prices and land values," he said. "I have no regrets, and I still have my hands on farming, but in a different way."
Simmons, who obtained his real estate license about 10 years ago, now makes land sales his full-time job. But his story is reflective of what’s happened in agriculture during the past few years, according to the USDA’s latest census.
The average age of principal farm operators continues to rise. Nationally, the average age was 58.3 years. In Illinois, the average age was 59.2, so Simmons’ departure helped bump Illinois’ age statistic.
His former tract also became part of a larger farm – another growing trend. The total number of farms between the USDA’s census from 2007 to 2012 dropped a bit in Illinois, from 76,860 to 75,087.
That mirrors the national trend, with farm totals dropping from 2,204,792 in 2007 to 2,109,303 in 2012.
Where Illinois bucks the national trend is in total amount of farm acres. Within the five-year period between the two censuses, Illinois gained 162,621 acres of farmland, for a 2012 total of about 26.9 million acres.
In all other Corn Belt states – with the exception of Ohio, whose farmland acreage stayed about the same – the number of farmland acres dropped by a large margin.
Nationally, acreage went from 922 million in 2007 to about 915 million in 2012. But that decrease was the slightest drop in acreage between census counts since 1950.
One of the key reasons for the lower rate of decrease – and increases in other states – is commodity prices, said Todd Kuethe, an assistant professor of land economics at the University of Illinois.
"The margins we’ve seen in row crop production are enough that folks understand the ground needs to stay active," he said. He noted farmland acres were gained throughout Illinois, not just in one part of the state that stretches from Lake Michigan down to where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet.
The entire census report, with breakdowns by state, can be accessed online at www.agcensus.usda.gov