The USDA has released a preliminary report on the 2012 Census of Agriculture. The full report will reach the public in May.

The preliminary data provides “a snapshot of a strong rural America that has remained stable during difficult economic times,” said Tom Vilsack, Agriculture Secretary. “We have slowed significantly the loss of farmland, which has totaled 72 million acres since 1982. New tools provided in the 2014 farm bill will help to further slow and reverse this trend.”

While the census shows farm income is at a record high, “the prolonged drought and lack of disaster assistance have made it more difficult for livestock producers and mid-sized farms to survive,” continued Vilsack. “The 2014 farm bill guarantees disaster assistance and provides additional stability for farmers and ranchers.”

Shortly after the report’s release, Farm Press spoke with Cynthia Clark, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) Administrator.

Why the delay in releasing the full report?

“The sequester did have an impact but it wasn’t just that,” said Clark. “Also, we had to deal with budget uncertainty in fiscal years 2012 and 2013. Because of the 2012 budgets, we did buy-outs and were in reorganization. … Then, we continued to have issues with a reduced budget in 2012. In 2013, we didn’t have a budget when we were going into the census. In fact, when we needed to mail out the census we were unsure if we’d get the needed funds.”

NASS ended up delaying the census release, which had an 80 percent response rate. “We are providing a preliminary release now and plan to provide the complete census in May. But the government shutdown in October impacted our schedule of review and because we were understaffed we couldn’t rearrange other responsibilities to get to that staff review until later in the year.

“Right now, we’re releasing national and state estimates for number of farms, land and farms, value of sales, and characteristics of the principal operator.”

Key findings

Some of the key findings of the census, according to Clark:

  • The number of farms has decreased by about 4 percent since 2007.

“The number of farms has been decreasing for the past 30 years, though, so that isn’t really new news.”

  • Land in farms has remained fairly steady from the last census.

“So, it appears the land in farms is just being consolidated into fewer operations.”

  • Value of sales shows a dramatic increase.

“We had large farm sales in 2012. In fact, we had larger crop sales than livestock sales -- the first time that has happened since 1974. In part, that is due to the 2012 drought when there were high commodity prices.

“That may not all be good news because the inputs for production also went up during that period. What the farmer may have ended up (netting) may not have been much more than in the past.”

  • Shifting demographics.

“We are seeing an increase in minority principal farm operators across all minority groups. The most significant change was in the Hispanic demographic.

“Women farm operators slightly decreased. But we’re talking about principal farm operators now. In our next release in May, we’ll have information on up to three farm operators. So, we’ll likely see a larger participation of women as secondary operators.”

What about younger farmers coming into the business?

“The trend in age in principal farm operators has increased to 58 years. The age of farmers has risen about one year through each census.

“There’s been a significant decrease in the age groups of 45 to 54 and 35 to 44. Farmers under 25 and 25 to 35 show the same numbers as in 2007. You’d expect that may be because the younger farmers aren’t entering the business as a principal operator.”

Does anything stand out regionally?

“One of the things is that Missouri is second in number of farms.

“The number of farms has decreased in every Mid-South state. Meanwhile, the average size of farms in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi has increased.

“Also, the market value of crops sold has increased. Livestock value has also gone up but not as much as crops.

“The number of farms has decreased in the South and Southeast and has increased in the Southwest.”