The USDA has only been in charge of the Census of Agriculture since 1997. And the department took that census over so late, “we didn't make many changes,” says Rich Allen, National Agricultural Statistic Service (NASS) deputy administrator for programs and products.

However, for the 2002 census (the census is taken every five years), USDA wanted to shift focus a bit to make findings “more relevant. To accomplish that, we added some things to the census that hadn't been there before.”

For example, in the past, every operation was forced to list just one principal operator. That led to a lot of confusion in the country.

“People were saying, ‘Well, if you've got 2 million farms, then you only have 2 million farmers.’ We knew that wasn't right and so set out to get a better measure of how many folks are involved in ag. This time, we asked how many people are involved as operators.”

About two-thirds of respondents still said they had just one operator. The remaining third bumped operator numbers up significantly, though.

Total number of farm operations in 2002: 2,128,982. But the final count showed 3,115,172 operators.

“So, in essence, we found another million farmers that weren't counted previously,” says Allen.

Statisticians found that the principal operator's age is 55.3. That's up from 1997's 54 years — a bump typical of the last few censuses.

“When we look at the second operator, the age drops to 49.4. The third operator is typically 42 years of age. That shows there are young people waiting to take over farms.”

In preparing for the latest census, NASS noticed that as far back as 1980 the number of women identified as principal operators was jumping some 10 percent every census. This time, between 1997 and 2002, the number went up 13.4 percent. That happened even though the nation's total farm numbers went down about 4 percent (dropping from 2.22 million to 2.13 million).

Women are also the principal operators of 11.2 percent of all farms. When looking at the top three operators on a farm, women account for 17 percent of the total.

The amount of land operated by women increased 16.5 percent. “That shows women aren't just picking up small acreage,” says Allen. “They're picking up some nice acreage.”

Individual and family operations account for 90 percent of all farms in the country — an increase over the last census. That 90 percent garnered about 53 percent of all sales and government payments in 2002.

Six percent of operations are partnerships. That 6 percent received 18 percent of the total sales and government payments in 2002.

Three percent of operations are defined as legal corporations. The corporations got about 28 percent of all sales and government payments in 2002.

“The last percentage point is accounted for by research farms, state-operated farms, Indian reservation farms and other things like that,” says Allen.

“It struck us, when preparing for the 2002 census, that questions hadn't been asked about production contracts. This is an important aspect of agriculture that was never broached,” says Allen.

NASS found that a little over 2.2 percent of farms (46,995 farms) in the country had production contracts and they produced nearly 16 percent of the $200.6 billion of farm products in 2002.

After changing or tweaking questions and methods this time around, “some things leapt out,” says Allen. First, land in farms went down from 955 million acres to 939 million acres (1.7 percent). During that same period, the total market value plus government payments didn't change much between 1997 ($206.7 billion) and 2002 ($207.2 billion — about $97,000 per farm). Crops account for 47 percent of sales and livestock for 53 percent.

From 1997 to 2002, the value of land and buildings went up 24 percent. In 1997, there was a total value of $922 billion. In 2002, the value was $1.145 trillion.

The average value per farm went up 29 percent (the 5 percent over the collective value is explained by farms lost between 1997 and 2002). From $416,000 in 1997, the value per farm went to $538,000 in 2002. The value per acre went from $967 to $1,213.

Other findings of interest among the 500-plus page report:

  • 38.7 percent of operators use a computer and 49.6 percent said they had Internet access.

  • The Delta tends to have fewer family farms, says Allen. “There are more partnerships and corporation farms — there are some really high value farms in the Delta.”

  • Since 1997, irrigated farmland declined 1.7 percent. However, the market value of products from irrigating farms rose 10 percent to $82 billion.