2017 Ag Census: Three Summaries You Should Read

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Last month, the USDA released the results of its 2017 Agricultural Census. This is an 820-page report that boasts 6.4 million new points of data about America’s farms and ranches and those who operate them. You now have your answer as to how long it takes to summarize a survey of some 3 million operations across the United States— about two years.

With only a month so far to scan the data and tinker with the Ag Census’ new online query tool, we’re naturally still barely scratching the surface of what it all implies for San Diego County.

So far, we know the data validates some looming, long-held concerns (44% of San Diego farmers are age 65 or older, and 75% are 55 or older). It also illuminates some true bright spots in our agricultural community (the number of female “primary producers”—main decision-makers—on San Diego farms more than doubled from 2012 to 2017).

SDFSA will be further analyzing the Ag Census data as part of our research for San Diego Food Vision 2030. In the meantime, here are a few particularly insightful summaries from three respected agriculture organizations that we enjoyed reading:

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)

Read the post here: http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/2017-ag-census/

Who’s reviewing? The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is an alliance of grassroots organizations that advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities.

Main takeaway from 2017 Ag Census: The continued consolidation of U.S. agriculture is taking more medium-sized family farms out of the game and concentrating wealth and power among fewer, larger operations

From NSAC’s review:

The 2017 Census of Agriculture puts hard data behind what American farmers and farmer advocates have known for some time – if we don’t invest in beginning farmers and the advancement of our family farms, and if we don’t put checks on increasing consolidation in agriculture, we’re going to be at risk of losing the ag of the middle entirely,” said Juli Obudzinski, NSAC Interim Policy Director.  “Seventy five percent of all agricultural sales are now coming from just five percent of operations. The total number of farms is down nationwide, while the average size of farms continues to increase. We can’t sit idly by while the middle falls out of American agriculture. If we’re going to reverse these trends, we need to focus on programs and policies – beginning farmer and rancher programs, local and organic agriculture, and farmer-driven research to name a few – that help our family farmers thrive, not just survive.

Additional highlights identified by NSAC

  • Fewer, but larger farms: While the number of farms decreased by 3%, the average farm size has increased 1.6% to 441 acres.

  • Continued aging of farmers: The average age of farmers is now 57.5 years, up 1.2%, with farmers over the age of 65 now making up 35% of total farmers.

  • More farmers are being counted: The total number of producers increased nearly 7%, primarily because more farms reported multiple producers.

  • Increase in beginning farmers: With more farmers counted, new farmers now represent 27% of the overall farm population, a 5% increase.

  • More information on the role of women in farming: Women make up 36% of all farmers (an increase of 27%), and were most involved in day-to-day decisions and record keeping and/or financial management

  • Increase in organic sales: Total organic product sales increased 27%, with a 39% increase in the number of farms certified as organic and a 15% increase in acres transitioning into organic production

  • Increase in local food sales: Over 6% of farms sell directly to consumers, totaling $2.8 billion, or roughly 1.4% of total ag sales. Another $9 billion was sold locally via retail, institutions, or food hubs.

National Young Farmers Coalition

Read the post here: https://www.youngfarmers.org/2019/04/census2017/

Who’s reviewing? The National Young Farmers Coalition (the Coalition) is a national advocacy network of young farmers fighting for the future of agriculture. They focus on changing policy, building networks, and providing business services to ensure all young farmers have the chance to succeed.

Main takeaway from 2017 Ag Census: The number of young farmers is not keeping pace with the number of farmers aging out of the field

From the Coalition’s review:

The average age of primary producers increased from 58.3 in 2012 to 59.4 in 2017. The average age of all producers also increased from 56.3 to 57.5 years from 2012 to 2017. Although the number of primary producers under 35 increased by nearly 2,000, primary producers over 65 now outnumber farmers under 35 by more than 6 (6.41) to 1. Previously a ratio of 5.85 to 1, this widening gap reveals a crisis of attrition in agriculture as farmers retire without a successor in place.

Enterprising young people face an uphill battle in establishing themselves in agriculture given prohibitive land prices, student loan debt, lack of skilled farm labor, and limited health care options. Our federal farm policy must do more to address these barriers to entry and support our next generation of farmers and ranchers. Young farmers rely on funding for key farm bill programs, and additional data collection efforts on farmland ownership are needed to inform policy solutions.


Unfortunately, the number of Latinx and non-white primary producers did not increase. Ninety-five percent of U.S. primary producers surveyed identified as White; the number of Black, Latinx, Asian American, and Native American primary producers all decreased between 2012 and 2017.

“We hope that these new findings will lead to a concerted effort across government to support young farmers, especially young farmers of color, in entering into viable careers in agriculture.”

While the Coalition is focused on young farmers, their review should not be taken as a niche report. The enormous responsibility of producing food for the nation falls extremely disproportionately upon a segment of our population that will be unable to bear that burden in the next decade, and we are doing hardly anything to recruit or retain replacements. The Coalition calls out the cold, hard truth that will affect all parts of the food system: We urgently need more young farmers.

Capital Press: “Standing up for the count”

Read the post here: https://www.capitalpress.com/ag_sectors/dairy/standing-up-for-the-count-women-farmers-better-represented-in/article_de666770-6853-11e9-997d-7bb3305b4673.html

Who’s reviewing? Capital Press is an independent farm, ranch and agriculture news source covering the agriculture industry in an around California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

Main takeaway from 2017 Ag Census: Improvements made to the Ag Census survey design reflects both women entering agriculture, as well as women who have been involved all along—and are finally being counted for the first time

From the article:

“We knew there were a lot more women farming… they just weren’t being counted.”

Some of it was cultural, with women who were involved in bookkeeping and marketing not claiming the farmer hat. The panel’s recommendation was to open up the demographic section and add questions to capture shared decision-making and management.

That ultimately affected the number of women reporting involvement. While the number of women in agriculture is increasing overall, the census results more reflect that women who have been involved all along are also being counted.

This article from Capital Press focuses on the importance of survey design in producing an accurate Ag Census. Changes in the questionnaire for 2017 allowed for more accurate reporting of multiple producers and principal producers, which partially contributed to the major spike in female principal producers nationwide (true in San Diego County as well). In earlier versions of the Census, it was often women on farms who were edged out of reporting due to a faulty survey structure that limited reporting “principal producers” to only one individual per operation. With the ability to now report multiple producers and principal producers, women who were previously underreported could finally be officially represented in Census data.

Whether it’s more women farming, more women recognized as farmers, or more women officially recognized for their decision-making role in other capacities on the farm, it’s great to see the numbers more accurately reflect the contributions women bring to agriculture.

A sneak peek of Ag Census highlights for San Diego County

Again, SDFSA looks forward to sharing more findings as we San Diego Food Vision 2030.

For now, here are a few of our preliminary takeaways:

  • San Diego farmers continue an aging trend. The average age of producers in San Diego County is 61.4. This is higher than the national average of 57.5. 44% of San Diego farmers are 65 and older, and 75% are 55 and older.

  • San Diego young producers make up only 4% of producers. A small uptick from 2% of producers in 2012, but as National Young Farmers Coalition reported, not enough to keep up with farmers aging out of the field.

  • Clear signs that interest in agriculture is rising. San Diego County has the highest number of “new and beginning” producers in the state. This also means we need to increase our investment in support and outreach to meet that rising interest!

  • More than twice as many women reported since 2012 in “principal producer” roles on farms. The 2017 Census saw a 126% increase—more than double!—in the number of female primary producers reported in San Diego County since 2012.

  • More farms adding ag tourism & recreation, but income from these ventures declining: Interestingly, more farms reported income from ag tourism and recreation (60 in 2017 vs. 46 in 2012); however, total reported income dropped from 17%, from $2.3 million to $1.9 million.

More to come!