Survey: U.S. loses 8,000 farms and a million acres of farmland

Jan Shepel

Washington, D.C.- A report released this week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture finds that the number of farms in the country has fallen by 8,000 from 2015 to 2016 and total land in farms decreased by a million acres during that year.
            The average farm size continues to tick upward. In 2009 there were 2,169,660 U.S. farms with an average size of 423 acres. Last year there were 2,060,000 farms in the United States with an average farm size of 442 acres, up one acre from a year earlier.
            The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), which conducts the survey that leads to this annual report, differentiates farms by six economic sales classes. Those classes are created by sales of agricultural products – and the total includes government program payments in the calculation of “sales.” The agricultural product sales categories used by the agency are: $10,000, $100,000, $250,000, $500,000, and $1,000,000.
Producers were asked during the 2016 survey to report the value of sales based on production during the 2015 calendar year.
What NASS calls “Point Farms” are farms that did not have the required minimum $1,000 in sales for the year to qualify as a farm, but had sufficient crops and livestock to normally have sales of $1,000 or more.
The report noted that Point Farms are assigned a sales class based on the sum of the agricultural point (dollar) values assigned to the quantity of commodities that were produced but not sold. The most recent (2012) Census of Agriculture showed that 428,810 farms or 20.3 percent of the 2.11 million farms were Point Farms. These Point Farms operated 63.0 million acres or 6.9 percent of the 914.5 million acres of farmland.

A report released this week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture finds that the number of farms in the country has fallen by 8,000 from 2015 to 2016 and total land in farms decreased by a million acres during that year.

Farm number declined

While the overall number of farms declined by 8,000 from a year earlier, the number of farms in the “Sales Class” $250,000 - $499,999 increased. That was the only sales category of farms in which there was an increase nationally.

  • Fifty percent of all farms had less than $10,000 in sales.
  • Eighty percent of all farms had less than $100,000 in sales.
  • Eight percent of all farms had sales of $500,000 or more.  

The number of the country’s smallest farms -- designated by their sales class of $1,000 to $9,999 – was 1.03 million and had declined by 5,000 farms from a year earlier. The next larger group of farms – sales class $10,000 to $99,999 – numbered 621,000 farms, and that group declined by 2,000 farms.
In Sales Class $100,000 to $249,999 there were 145,000 farms, and that group declined by 400 farms. As mentioned, the Sales Class $250,000 to $499,999 was the only group that saw an increase. This group grew by 400 farms and numbered 98,000 farms.
The Sales Class $500,000 to $999,999 stood at 82,000 farms, declining by 500 farms from a year earlier and the Sales Class with farm goods at $1 million or more stood at 82,000 farms, and had declined by 200 farms from a year earlier.
The breakdown of all farms by sales class are $1,000 to $9,999 -- 50.1 percent; $10,000 to $99,999 -- 30.1 percent; $100,000 to $249,999 -- 7.0 percent; $250,000 to $499,999 -- 4.8 percent; $500,000 to $999,999 – 4 percent and $1 million or more – 4 percent.
The survey finds that Wisconsin lost 200 farms from a year earlier. There were 68,900 farms in 2015 and 68,700 in 2016. That correlated with the loss of about 100,000 acres of land in farming and a slight uptick in the average farm size – from 209 acres in 2015 to 210 acres in 2016.

Land in farming

The land used in farming, at 911 million acres, was down 1 million acres from 2015. The USDA’s analysts noted that the biggest changes from a year earlier were that producers with sales of $250,000 to $499,999 operated nearly 1.3 million more acres compared to a year earlier. They also noted that farmers with agricultural sales of $1 million or more operated 1.01 million fewer acres.
Like the previous year’s survey, this 2016 report showed that nearly 31 percent of all farmland was operated by farms with less than $100,000 in sales and 41 percent of all farmland was operated by farms with sales of $500,000 or more.
Three of the survey’s designated categories denoting farm size had increases in acreage – the $10,000 to $99,999 class stood at 192 million acres, an increase of 410,000 acres; the $250,000 to $499,999 sales class increased by 1.29 million acres to 127.1 million acres; and the $500,000 to $999,999 sales class increased by 100,000 acres to a total of 156.5 million acres.
There were declines in acres in the other three categories.

Average farm size

The number of farms declines more than the land in farms statistic, which means that the average farm size continued to increase – albeit by one acre over a year earlier. There are now 442 acres in the average U.S. farm.
The average farm size continued to increase in 2016 as the number of farms  declined more than land in farms. The overall average size increased by 1 acre to 442 acres per farm, which continues a trend seen in the last eight years of the survey.
Average farm size by sales class are:

  • $1,000 to $9,999 in sales: 84 acres
  • $10,000 to $99,999 in sales: 309 acres (an increase)
  • $100,000 to $249,999 in sales: 896 acres
  • $250,000 to $499,999 in sales: 1,296 acres (an increase)
  • $500,000 to $999,999: 1,897 acres (an increase)
  • $1 million in sales or more: 2,656 acres

In Wisconsin in the smallest economic class - $1,000 to $9,999 in gross sales of agricultural goods - there were 30,500 farms in 2015 and 30,400 in 2016. The average farm size of those operations in the state remained at 64 acres.
The survey found that in 2015, Wisconsin had 21,000 farms in the sales class covering $10,000 to $99,999 and the average farm size was 138 acres; in 2016 there were 20,900 farms in that size group and their acreage averages 136. According to the survey there were 2.9 million acres in Wisconsin farms that fit this sales class in 2015 and in 2016 their farms covered 2.85 million acres.
In the gross farm sales class of $100,000 to $249,000, Wisconsin had 7,300 farms in 2015 and 2016. Land farmed by those farmers grew from 1.9 million acres to 1.95 million acre and average farm size also grew year over year – from 260 acres in 2015 to 267 in 2016.
In the category of farms that sold $250,000 to $499,000 in agricultural products, Wisconsin lost 50 farms, going from 850 in 2015 to 800 a year later. Land in farms in that category remained steady at 2.05 million acres. The average acres-per-farm for Wisconsin farms in this sales category was 418 in 2015 and 427 in 2016.
According to the survey, Wisconsin had 2,850 farms in the $500,000 to $999,999 sales category in 2015 and that rose to 2,900 in 2016. Those farms had 2.05 million acres of land in their operations both years. The survey showed that the average farm size of these Wisconsin farms went from 719 in 2015 to 707 a year later.
Farms that sold a million dollars or more of agricultural goods in Wisconsin numbered 2,350 in 2015 and 2,400 in 2016. Farms in this category covered 3.55 million acres both years. The average farm size was 1,511 acres in 2015 and 1,479 acres last year.

Farm definition

The USDA report explains that the current definition of a “farm” is “any place from which $1,000 or more in agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the year” and government program payments are included as “sales” for the purpose of this report.
Back in 1850, when the government established the definition of a farm, it was a place from which $100 worth of agricultural goods were sold.
The definition includes ranches, institutional farms, experimental and research farms, and Indian Reservations are included as well. Even properties with the entire acreage enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), and other government conservation programs are counted as farms.
The definition of a farm was first established by the federal government in 1850 and has changed nine times since. The current definition was created by the USDA for the 1974 Census of Agriculture.
Land in farms consists of agricultural land used for crops, pasture, or 
grazing. Also included are woodlands and wastelands not actually under 
cultivation or used for pasture or grazing -- provided that land was part of the farm 
operator's total operation. Land in farms includes acres in CRP, WRP, and 
other government conservation programs.
Land in farms includes land owned and operated as well as land rented from 
others. Land that is farmed rent-free is included as land rented from others. All land in American Indian reservations used for growing crops or grazing livestock is included as land in farms. Land in reservations not reported by individual American Indians or 
non-Native Americans is reported in the name of the cooperative group that used the land. According to the agency, there are many instances in which the entire American Indian reservation is reported as one farm.

Definition History

The definition of a farm has remained the same since 1974. Activities included as agriculture, however, have undergone modification in recent  years. Beginning in 1995, operations having 5 or more horses or ponies and no other agricultural sales were counted as horse farms. An operation with 1 or more horses with agricultural sales of at least $1,000, qualified as a farm.
Two industries, maple syrup and short rotation woody crop farms, were added beginning in 1997 as a result of the new North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) and were made so this survey’s would be compatible with the Census of Agriculture’s farm definition.
All the changes in the farm definition beginning in 1995 were carried back to 1993 and included in the 1993-1998 estimates. These changes bring comparability between the Census of Agriculture data and the annually published NASS estimates. Because of these changes in the farm definition, the official estimates show a level difference in the number of farms between 1992 and 1993 in some states.
To further align the counting of farms with the Census of Agriculture, places with 100 acres or more of pasture only in 2002 were included in farm and land in farm numbers. The handling of Indian reservation land was changed in 2002 to provide for some accounting of individual farms.