Tom Webb, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published February 20 2014
Fewer farms, older farmers: Ag sector consolidating as larger farmers grow and smaller ones disappearFive years of farm prosperity haven’t reversed long-term trends in agriculture: Minnesota continues to have fewer but bigger farms. And the average farmer is getting older.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday gave a preliminary look at its 2012 Census of Agriculture, a once-every-five-year snapshot of the nation’s farms and ranches.
In Minnesota, there were 8 percent fewer farms in 2012 than five years earlier. The new report counts 74,537 Minnesota farms, compared with 80,992 farms in the 2007 report.
Dan Lofthus, state statistician, said the USDA defines a farm as an entity that produces and sells at least $1,000 of ag products a year. For decades, those farm numbers have been shrinking.
“In 1978, there were just under 100,000 farms in Minnesota,” Lofthus said. “Now we’re down to about 75,000 farms, so that has trended down certainly.”
But unlike many decades, the period between 2007 and 2012 was broadly prosperous for agriculture. While the general economy struggled with recession, agriculture enjoyed strong grain prices, surging land values and an ethanol-fueled boom.
Those good times showed up in the value of Minnesota crops sold: $7 billion back in 2007, which nearly doubled to $14 billion five years later. Livestock producers saw a less dramatic five-year increase of 17 percent.
Still, those good times didn’t halt long-term trends. The number of farmers – the “principal operator” in USDA lingo – also fell 8 percent in Minnesota. Those farmers are older, too, averaging 56.6 years of age, compared to 55.3 years in the earlier survey.
Minnesota had fewer farms of all sizes this time around, except for the very largest, those with more than 1,000 acres, the report said.
“The movement in the Minnesota numbers really is reflective of what’s happening at the U.S. level as well,” Lofthus said. “Some of the changes in the farm numbers, as well as changes in the size of farms, it’s not dissimilar to what you’re seeing at the U.S. level.”
The recession may have played a role in the steep drop in smaller “hobby” farms – down 20 percent. But the number of farms with 1,000 or more acres rose 1 percent, reaching 6,262 in Minnesota.
The number of Minnesota farms with $1 million in sales nearly doubled in the past five years, to 5,393, reflecting not only larger operations but higher crop prices.
The amount of farmland in Minnesota fell 3 percent during the five-year period, to 26 million acres, the report said.
Lofthus said Thursday’s preliminary numbers will be followed this spring by more complete data. That will include county-by-county figures, plus counts of specific types of farms, including numbers on the growing organic sector.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.