Every five years (the ones ending in a 2 or a 7, in case you were wondering), the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts a census of American farmers. Processing all that data takes quite a bit of time (heck, just getting farmers to return it is pretty time-intensive), so preliminary results for the 2012 census were just released last month.
In case you’re not familiar, the census provides a comprehensive summary of agricultural activity in every state and county in the nation, including the number of farms* by size and type, inventory and values for crops, farmer* characteristics, and much more.
While the detailed report won’t be available until late spring, the first batch of data is here now. Overall the data shows the continuation of the same trends we’ve seen for years: our farmers are getting older and fewer in number, and the farms that do stick around are getting bigger.
Dig a little deeper though, and there are some bright spots to be had—even here in the Big Apple. Below are five important things to know about New York agriculture in 2012, as revealed by the first batch of census data.
- Young farmers are sprouting: The number of farmers under the age of 35 in New York State grew 14.4 percent over the five-year period (from 1,879 to 2,149)—that’s way above the national increase of just 1.1 percent. Wes Hannah of the National Young Farmers Coalition explained the growth to NYER this way: “New York is one of the leaders in providing many programs and benefits for beginning farmers—everything from a strong Cooperative Extension, NOFA, and other organizations to helpful land trusts and other groups focused on land access. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re optimistic that we’re starting to see the inflection point on recognizing the need to support the next generation.”
- Farmers are becoming more diverse: While the total number of farmers in the United States continues to fall, the farmers we do have are becoming more diverse. Here in New York, the number of farms being operated by those of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino origins has increased by 27 percent since 2007. Those operated by Asians are up 8.4 percent, and by African Americans 6 percent.
- We’re still losing farms…but not as fast as the rest of the nation: From 2007 to 2012, the United States lost farms at nearly twice the rate as New York State (a 4.3 percent decline compared to a percent decline) That being said, New York still lost 814 farms over the five year period, which works out to about three farms per week. Ouch.
- Farmland acreage is increasing: According to the report, land being used for farm operations in New York has increased by .12 percent, to 7,183,579 acres. That may not seem like a lot, but nationwide we actually saw a drop of 0.8 percent.
- We’ve got a few more full-time farmers. Off-farm employment has always been important for America’s farming population (whether for additional income, health benefits, or other reasons), and New York is no different. Forty-two percent of New York farmers report another job as their primary occupation—but that’s 4 percent less than 2007. That means more farmers are finding a way to make full-time food production work, and that’s good news.
These demographic, economic, and production trends are not only super-interesting for all of us numbers geeks—they’re also a critical tool for policy makers, community planners, journalists, farmers, and the general public, too. The best part is, this is just a taste of what’s to come! Full results are expected in May 2014.
(* Note: The USDA defines a farm as any agricultural enterprise that produces and sells goods worth at least $1,000 in a year. Demographic data is taken from surveys of each farm’s “principal operator.”)