The Ever-Changing Portrait of the American Grower

one male and two female growers working in their fields and on machinery

Today's American grower has learned that doing more with less land is key to succeed. Input costs have increased through the years, while commodity prices and land availability have declined. With her smart phone in hand, she checks in on the weather, the markets and her grown children, who help her with the operation. She hopes they will want to stay involved later in life, but that may mean substantially boosting production to financially support their livelihoods – and their growing families.

In 1840, the first U.S. Census of Agriculture was conducted, and since then data driven from the census has shown a glimpse of American agriculture – from the people involved to land use, production practices, expenditures and more.

The Ag Census looks at all farms and ranches and the people who operate them once every five years, with the latest census data collected in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Findings were made available to the public in April 2019.

This data can help organizations like Bayer provide solutions growers need today and in the future. The results reveal several key trends in the fast-evolving agricultural industry:

  • Growers are doing more with less land.
  • Most active farms are large or small, with midsize farms declining in acres and dollars.
  • More women are principal producers.
  • Growers are aging.
  • Large farms can more likely support multiple generations financially.
  • Internet use – especially through cable modem, fiber optics and mobile devices – increased tremendously the past five years.

Farms are getting bigger

The overall number of farms and land in farms decreased slightly between census years, but the average farm size grew. This data tracks with trends in farm size over the past 20 years; farms with 2,000 acres or more continue to grow and account for 58 percent of farmland. There is also growth among the smallest farms; mid-size farms, meanwhile, are declining in terms of size and dollars.

The census shows how today's American grower is using his or her farmland:

  • Most growers are using their land for permanent pasture or cropland.
  • Harvests are growing: An additional 5 million acres of cropland was harvested between 2012 and 2017 data collection.
  • There was a major shift toward soybeans – 14 million more acres harvested – in the same time period.

The Midwest and Texas are still the epicenter

Eastern Texas and the Midwest count the highest number of farms, but California drew the most revenue from agricultural sales due to its high-value crops, including fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and berries.

A farm, defined the same since 1974, is “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the census year.” The Top 10 states with the most farms are:

  1. Texas
  2. Missouri
  3. Iowa
  4. Oklahoma
  5. Ohio
  6. Kentucky
  7. Illinois
  8. California
  9. Tennessee
  10. Minnesota

Growers are anything but average

The USDA changed the way growers are able to identify themselves in 2017. Growers are now referred to as “producers” rather than “operators,” and, for the first time, census takers could identify more than one principal producer and list their military service. These changes resulted in understanding more about American agricultural producers.

Overall, the number of producers increased nearly 7 percent in 2017. The census points to additional key insights about the people behind America's farms:

  • Gender diversity is increasing: Male producers saw a decline by 2 percent, but the number of female producers increased by 27 percent. Also, female producers make up 36 percent of all producers, and 54 percent of farms have a female decision maker.
  • Producers are getting older: Average age continues to climb. The typical American grower is now 57.5 years old, compared to 56.3 years in 2012 and 54.9 years in 2007.
  • But younger growers are getting into the game: While most farms operate under a producer with more than 23 years of experience, producers who have operated a farm 10 years or less make up 27 percent of all producers, and about 29 percent of all farms have a new or beginning producer.
  • Military service is relatively common: Eleven percent of producers have military service, and 17 percent of farms have a producer who served in the military.

It's getting tougher to earn a living

Crop yields in 2017 were at or near record levels overall, but prices were substantially lower for crops and modestly lower for livestock. All sizes of operations saw declines in sales except the smallest operations – those with less than $2,500 in sales – and the largest operations of $5 million or more in sales.

Nearly two-thirds of the $389 billion total value of U.S. ag production in 2017 came from farms with $1 million or more in sales. At $45 billion, California showed the most ag revenue by far compared to other states, which makes sense considering the commodities grown in California – fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and berries – are highest in value.

There was a 50/50 split between livestock and crops, in terms of the value of products sold.

Growers with internet access on the farm or ranch increased from 70 percent in 2012 to 75 percent in 2017. Cable modem and fiber optics both increased, as did mobile internet. Generally, growers in the western and northern states have greater internet access.

Learn more

More tools and information related to the 2017 Ag Census can be found throughout the year at The next census will occur in 2022.

Tags: agriculture

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