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Ag census: U.S. lost 142,000 farms, 20 million acres in five years
By Michele F. Mihaljevich
Indiana Correspondent

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Calling the results of the 2022 Census of Agriculture a “wake up call,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack expressed concern over the continued loss of farms and farmland noted in the recently released survey.
The U.S. lost nearly 142,000 farms in five years, he said, dropping from 2,042,220 farms in 2017 to 1,900,487 in 2022. The nation lost about 20 million acres of farmland, from a little over 900 million acres in 2017 to 880 million in 2022.
“This survey is essentially ... asking the critical question of whether, as a country, are we OK with losing that many farms?” Vilsack stated. “Are we OK with losing that much farmland, or is there a better way?
“The hope would be that we would continue to encourage people to get in and remain in the farming business and that we would be able to preserve our farmland. But survey after survey continues to show a decline in the number of farms and in the farmland. The amount of farm decline is significant. It’s particularly significant in this survey.”
The census defines a farm as “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the census year.”
Vilsack spoke Feb. 13, the day census results were released. The survey, done every five years, was conducted by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). The response rate for the census was 61 percent, down from nearly 72 percent in 2017.
The loss of farmland is also a concern for David Knopf, regional director of the NASS Eastern Mountain Regional Field Office. “The percentage is small, because the total is large, but to those areas that are losing farmland, it is not insignificant,” he told Farm World. “Some of it is prime farmland, such as when a manufacturer builds a new plant or when land is used for solar farms. Other land is near growing cities, which lose a heritage and open spaces.”
Knopf said the magnitude of the decline in farm numbers was a surprise.
“There was a 9.8 percent (decline) in Tennessee, 9.75 percent (decline) in Wisconsin, 8.6 percent (decline) in Kentucky. There were nine states that had a decline of 10 percent or more. The largest was a 16.2 percent (decline) in New Mexico.”
The drop in number of farms (6.9 percent) is a larger percentage decrease than what has been seen in the past 20 years, noted Bryan Combs, chief of the NASS Environmental, Economics and Demographic Branch.
“Looking at the percentage change by state in farm numbers from the previous census, decreases are seen in the majority of states,” he said. “Most had declines greater than 5 percent. There were a few exceptions where farms did increase, such as Iowa, which was up slightly.”
As for land in farms, most states were down 1-2 percent from the 2017 census, Combs said. He spoke Feb. 15 during the USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum in Arlington, Va.
During the agency’s Feb. 13 census release briefing, Vilsack also discussed the average age of the American farmer, which increased from 57.5 in 2017 to 58.1 in 2022.
“We recognize the importance of making the case to bright young people about the career opportunities and the chances that you all have to make a fundamental difference in agriculture and food,” he said. “We understand and appreciate that our department, and the food and agriculture industry writ large, has to reflect the America that it is going to serve.”
Vilsack praised the increasing productivity of U.S. farmers, saying, “it’s technology, it’s science. It’s the efficiency and the awareness of our farmers and ranchers of how to basically produce.”
In 2022, U.S. farms and ranches produced $543 billion in agricultural products, NASS said, up from $389 billion in 2017. Average net farm income was $79,790, up from $43,053.
The number of farms in every size category – except those with 5,000 or more acres – declined in 2022. The largest number of farms – 566,912 – was in the 10-49 acre category. There were 530,529 farms with 50-179 acres, and 288,379 with 180-499 acres.
NASS said there were just over a million farmers with 10 or fewer years of experience, an increase from 2017. The number of producers under age 35 was 296,480.
Knopf said he was surprised with the 11.4 percent increase in the number of new and beginning farmers. “(A) new and beginning producer is anyone who operated any farm for 10 years or less, including the census year. Overall, 30 percent of all producers are new or beginning. Thirty-three percent of all farms have a new or beginning producer. The average age of new and beginning producers is 47.1, which is lower than the average age of producers.”
Vilsack said he hopes policymakers take the opportunity to create a different model that acknowledges the importance of production agriculture and the significant investment people have made in very large farming operations. He also hopes those policymakers send a message of hope and opportunity to smaller and mid-sized operators by giving them multiple sources of revenue coming in from the farm so they wouldn’t have to work what amounts to a second, full-time job.
“Why is that important beyond agriculture?” he asked. “Because if you can in fact preserve those small- and mid-sized farming operations, you preserve the ability of those families to live, to work, and raise their children in the small towns. Those kids will go to the small town school, which will prevent the necessity of constant mergers of rural schools.
“The small business owner who is in need of customers will obviously have more customers. The small town hospital won’t have to beg to get a physician, won’t have to be concerned about it being constrained to a clinic because it will have sufficient population to support a small town hospital.
“But I sincerely hope that we take this information very seriously and that we understand that it need not be that every five years, we report fewer farms and less farmland,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be.”
To view the census, visit www.nass.usda.gov/agcensus/.

2/21/2024