Farmers of Hispanic origin are a significant and growing part of U.S. agriculture, according to data from the 2002 Census of Agriculture.

The 2002 census revealed major increases not only in the number of U.S. farms operated by Hispanics, but in the value of the products produced on those farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).

The number of farms with Hispanic principal operators grew 51.2 percent between 1997 and 2002, from 33,450 to 50,592. Of those farms, Hispanic women, the largest group of minority women principal operators, operated 10 percent.

“Hispanic farmers and ranchers are the largest group of minority farm operators in the United States. There are at least twice as many Hispanic farmers and ranchers as any other group of minority operators,” noted NASS Administrator R. Ronald Bosecker.

Hispanic-operated farms comprised more than 20.8 million acres of farmland throughout the United States in 2002, up 23.8 percent from 16.8 million acres five years earlier. The value of agricultural products sold also grew by 39 percent, or $1.3 billion.

In 2002, Hispanic principal operators sold a total of $4.67 billion in agricultural products, including $3.07 billion in crops and $1.6 billion in livestock, poultry and their products.

NASS conducts the Census of Agriculture every five years. It is the only source of consistent, comparable and detailed agricultural data for every county in America. For the statistics reported, Hispanic operators are individuals of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino origin.

“NASS is committed to providing accurate and detailed data on all minority farms and farm operators and we are working closely with minority farm organizations to improve our outreach efforts,” Bosecker said in a release dated Oct. 13.

Of the 50,592 total Hispanic-operated farms, more than a third, 17,756, were beef cattle ranching and farming operations. The second largest type of operation was “other crop farming” with 8,101. This category includes hay, peanuts, grass seed and farms where no single commodity provided the majority of the income. Third was fruit and tree nut farming with 7,739 operations.

In 2002, Texas led the nation in the number of Hispanic farm operators and acres, followed by California, New Mexico, Florida, Colorado, Oklahoma, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Michigan.

Data from the 2002 Census of Agriculture revealed some common characteristics among Hispanic principal operators and operations. The percent of Hispanic principal operators who were full owners of the farms they operated was 72.4, and nearly all Hispanic principal operators, 92.4 percent, owned at least part of the land they operated.

More than 90 percent of Hispanic-operated farms — 45,692 — are family or individually owned, rather than partnerships or corporations. More than half of all Hispanic principal operators were between the ages of 45 and 64 years, with 63.2 percent having worked on their current farm for at least 10 years.

The 2002 Census also provided the first facts on computer and Internet use by farmers and ranchers on a county-by-county basis. Census data revealed that 33.7 percent of Hispanic-operated farms use computers for business and 41.7 percent of all Hispanic operations have access to the Internet.