FRANKFORT, Ky. — On the surface, some of the information contained in the latest agriculture census was not good news for Kentucky.
The 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture showed that the number of Kentucky farms shrank from 85,260 in 2007, when the last census was taken, to 77,064 in 2012. The number of acres being farmed in 2007 stood at 13,993,121. In 2012, that number dropped to 13,049,347.
In fact, with a decline of nearly 1 million acres, Kentucky led the nation in the percentage of acres taken out of farming since 2007 at 6.7 percent.
But there are many reasons to account for a decline in acres farmed, said Daniel Smaldone, a spokesman for Kentucky Farm Bureau (KFB). "We should be concerned about farmland we lose to urban sprawl, but some acres may have simply been unproductive," he said.
Smaldone added that just because one census shows a steep decline doesn’t necessarily mean that will become a trend.
Looking at the census numbers over a 20-year period, the number of acres in farmland has declined overall by little more than 1.1 million acres. But in the time period between 2002 and 2007, there was an increase in the number of farmland acreage.
Smaldone also noted that between 2007 and 2012, Kentucky farmers reached record levels of productivity. "Farm efficiencies have improved. The output has not been affected. As a matter of fact, it has increased," he said. "We can still do a lot with the land we have and even more."
The census showed that the market value of sold Kentucky agricultural products rose by more than $240 million between 2007 and 2012. And since 2002, that market value has increased by almost $2 billion.
KFB President Mark Haney said many people were surprised at the drop in farmland acreage, but it really isn’t all that much of a revelation. He cites the transformation of a lot of the farms into larger operations and farmers having the means to be more productive through such things as better equipment, improved infrastructure and improved farming techniques. "Certainly in my operation in the fruit business, I don’t have the acres dedicated to fruit production that I did at one time because I can get more production off of less acreage and I think we are seeing that," he said.
In the past, especially in eastern and central Kentucky, small patches of crops like tobacco could be seen everywhere, Haney said, but now those crops are gone even though the land is still available.
He also said that in the future, production will have to increase and that a significant amount of research into how to make farms more productive will need to happen in order to meet those production needs.
Will Snell, an agriculture economist at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, said the first thing thought of in terms of losing crop land is development.
"There’s no doubt we have some development, but I don’t think that accounts for a large portion of it," he said. "A lot of farms didn’t have other income opportunities and basically the land didn’t disappear; it just doesn’t have any productive use right now or used in a farming capacity."
Snell did say he was somewhat shocked at the loss of the number of farms although he thinks some of that is definitional. From a productivity angle, he said a combination of larger farms, good markets and better varieties have all been contributing factors.
Last year, producers in Kentucky reached record farm cash receipt levels. This year may be a different story, although Snell said it’s too early to make any determinations on how the growing season will end.
"It’s going to be a challenging year for our producers," he said. "There’s no doubt we have acres out, and on the livestock side, the numbers are going to be phenomenal. We just don’t have as much inventory as we would like to have in this type of price environment."
While there may continue to be more land taken out of farm production between now and the next census, Snell said he doesn’t expect to see it at the same magnitude as with the current census. "Overall, the ag economy has been fairly strong, and I’m still bullish on the long term outlook," he said.
To view the census in its entirety, go to www.agcensus.usda.gov