Despite changes, Wisconsin agriculture remains strong

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
The total number of all farms in the state was more than 64,700 in 2017 compared to more than 69,700 in 2012, according to the 2017 Census of Ag.

With the 2017 Census of Agriculture figures released on April 11, census data shows that the vast majority of farms in Wisconsin are less than 500 acres, with most farms owned by one or two producers, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). Dairy and livestock continue to play a major role in the state’s agriculture landscape and economy.

“The census data demonstrates what many of us have long known,” said DATCP Secretary Brad Pfaff in a news release. “Wisconsin agriculture is broad, diverse, and strong. Each farm enterprise is unique, and our state still provides opportunities for operations of all types and sizes.” 

The ag census also showed that Wisconsin is second only to California in organic agriculture, according to DATCP. The number of organic farms has grown 30 percent in the past five years, to 1,537. The total value of organic sales grew by 105 percent, to $248.6 million annually.

While taking second in organic ag, when it comes to dairy goat herds, Wisconsin leads the nation with 1,900 herds. 

Wisconsin also saw a 46 percent increase in direct-to-consumer sales which grew to almost $47 million, according to DATCP.

National figures

Information collected by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) directly from farmers and ranchers shows that both farm numbers and land in farms have ongoing small percentage declines across the nation since the last Census in 2012. 

While the number of farms and ranches across the nation has fallen, the remaining operations are larger and are responsible for a higher percentage of agricultural sales.

The census shows there were 2.04 million farms and ranches in 2017 in the U.S., down 3.2 percent from 2012. The average size of those operations was 441 acres, an increase of 1.6 percent.

Related:Census paints a telling picture of agriculture

The 273,000 smallest (1-9 acres) farms make up 0.1 percent of all farmland while the 85,127 largest (2,000 or more acres) farms make up 58 percent of farmland.

About 75 percent of all sales came from only 105,453 of those farms, down more than 14,000 from 2012.

“We can all use the Census to tell the tremendous story of U.S. agriculture and how it is changing. As a data-driven organization, we are eager to dig in to this wealth of information to advance our goals of supporting farmers and ranchers, facilitating rural prosperity, and strengthening stewardship of private lands efficiently, effectively, and with integrity,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, in a news release.

“The Census shows new data that can be compared to previous censuses for insights into agricultural trends and changes down to the county level,” said NASS Administrator Hubert Hamer. “While the current picture shows a consistent trend in the structure of U.S. agriculture, there are some ups and downs since the last Census as well as first-time data on topics such as military status and on-farm decision making. To make it easier to delve into the data, we are pleased to make the results available in many online formats including a new data query interface, as well as traditional data tables.”

Census data provides valuable insights into demographics, economics, land and activities on U.S. farms and ranches.

Some key highlights include:

  • Ninety-six percent of farms and ranches are family owned.
  • Farms with Internet access rose from 69.6 percent in 2012 to 75.4 percent in 2017.
  • A total of 133,176 farms and ranches use renewable energy producing systems, more than double the 57,299 in 2012.

For the 2017 Census of Agriculture, NASS changed the demographic questions to better represent the roles of all persons involved in on-farm decision making. As a result, in 2017 the number of producers is up by nearly seven percent to 3.4 million, because more farms reported multiple producers.

Most of these newly identified producers are female. While the number of male producers fell 1.7 percent to 2.17 million from 2012 to 2017, the number of female producers increased by nearly 27 percent to 1.23 million. This change underscores the effectiveness of the questionnaire changes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Thirty-six percent of all producers are female and 56 percent of all farms have at least one female decision maker. Farms with female producers making decisions tend to be smaller than average in both acres and value of production.

Female producers are most heavily engaged in the day-to-day decisions along with record keeping and financial management.

Census results are available in many online formats including video presentations, a new data query interface, maps, and traditional data tables.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. 

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at