Census paints a telling picture of agriculture

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
The 820-page census is the deepest dive the USDA has made into demographics, effort and output of American farms.

Wisconsin's farms continue to consolidate, losing 4,961 or 7 percent of its farms over five years, the new U.S. Census of Agriculture shows. Nationally, the number of farms decreased about 3.2 percent to 2 million.

The number of farms in Wisconsin shrank 7 percent to 64,793, according to the Ag Census, which is conducted every five years. Two decades ago, Wisconsin had 79,541 farms. 

The new census shows Wisconsin is shedding mostly mid-sized farms (50 to 179 acres) while very big and very small farms grow. Between 2012 and 2017, small farms of 1 to 9 acres increased from 4603 to 5923, while mid-sized farms plummeted from 25502 to 21254. Farms with 500 to 999 acres increased by 295 while farms of 1000 to 1999 acres increased by 39 and the largest farms—2000 acres plus, grew by 50. A farm must have at least $1,000 in sales to be counted in the census.

The Midwest shows the greatest concentration of farming operations.

The trend was also mirrored nationally. While the 76,865 farms in the top two categories (sales of $5 million or more) represent fewer than 4% of U.S. farms; they sold more than two thirds of all agricultural production.

Dairy dilemma

The latest Census of Agriculture shows that nationwide there was a drop of 10,000 farms with dairy cows between 2012 and 2017.

In Wisconsin, the number of dairy farms fell from 11,542 in 2012 to 9,037 in 2017, a loss of 2,506. Twenty years earlier, the census of 1997 recorded 37,325 dairy farms in America's Dairyland. 

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, Wisconsin, which still leads the nation in the number of dairy farms, had the biggest numerical decline. Last year the state lost 691 or 7.9 percent of its licensed dairy operations. As of April 1, the number of dairy farms is listed at 7,898. 

While mid-size farms represent the largest agriculture operations in the country, these categories lost the most farms since 2012.

"Significant financial stress is weighing on American agriculture," said National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson. "The economic decline over the last five years is forcing many farmers out of business, continuing the trends of farm consolidation and rural economic degeneration we've seen for so many years."

While the average dairy herd size has increased over the past 20 years, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary-Designee Brad Pfaff concurs that the number of dairy farms has been moving in the opposite direction.

"Nationally the average herd size is 325 milk cows while here in Wisconsin it's around 142 cows," he said. 

Pfaff says that about 96 percent of Wisconsin farms are owned by one to two producers. In 2017, there were 55,135 family or individually-owned farms in 2017, down 5,482 since 2012. Farms owned by corporations grew from 3,334 in 2012 to 3,691 in 2017.

"Through this census data we've seen that our farm structure has largely remained stable since the last census in 2012," Pfaff said. "About 96 percent of our farms are under 500 acres. Wisconsin is also above the national average when it comes to land in our state being used for farming."

The total acreage used for farming is 14.2 million acres with 10.1 acres being planted in crops.

Promising trends

Pfaff pointed out that more than 10 percent of the state’s producers are 35 or younger, and their farms have an average annual production value of almost $319,000.

The average age of producers across the nation was 57.5.

“With 22 percent of our producers being new or beginning farmers, it’s clear people are optimistic for the future of Wisconsin agriculture,” Pfaff said.  

For 2017, there was a 72% response rate from the known farming and ranching operations that the census was sent to.

The National Young Farmers Coalition expressed dismay at the increase in age of primary producers.

"The number of young farmers is not keeping pace with the number of farmers aging out of the field," said Sophie Ackoff, vice president of Policy and Campaigns. "Although the number of primary producers under 35 increased by nearly 2,000, primary producers over 65 now outnumber farmers under 35 by more than 6 to 1."

Ackoff said enterprising young people face an uphill battle in establishing themselves in agriculture given prohibitive land prices, student loan debt, lack of skilled farm labor and limited health care options.

"Our federal farm policy must do more to address these barriers to entry and support our next generation of farmers and ranchers," she said.

Related:Despite changes, Wisconsin agriculture remains strong

Nationally, 41 percent of farmers in their first 10 years of farming are women and the total number of female principal operators increased by nearly 70 percent. Included among the new data in this census, is the number of women involved in on-farm decision making. The National Agricultural Statistics Service changed the demographic questions to better represent the roles of all persons involved in on-farm decisions.

Of the 97,482 producers involved in decision making on Wisconsin farms, 30,480 or 31 percent were women. While the number of male producers fell 1.7 percent to 2.17 million nationally, the number of female producers increased by nearly 27 percent to 1.23 million.

"By allowing for multiple principal operators, this Census does a much better job recognizing the important role that women play in running a family farm operation," Johnson said.

For years those living in rural areas had to settle for less than desirable internet access due to lack of broadband service providers. According to Pfaff, farms with internet access in the state of Wisconsin increased from 70 to 76 percent.

On-farm internet access has increased across Wisconsin from 70% in 2012 to 76% in 2017.

"There's still a need for broadband and 21st century communication infrastructure in our rural areas," he said. "Investment still needs to come into these rural areas but at least we're going in the right direction."

According to census data, out of the 64,793 farms, 49,312 reported having internet access. Counties still struggling to connect farms include Iron (49 percent with access), Clark (55 percent), Taylor and Florence (67 percent) and Richland (68 percent).

"There are definitely pockets in this state that have no service. Before I started this position, I worked in western Wisconsin where there are rolling hills, coulees and valleys," Pfaff said. "This is something I've been sharing with the Public Service Commission as well as rural telecommunications cooperatives."

Pfaff says he realizes that it's not an easy time for those involved in agriculture.

"There is emotional and financial pressures around the countryside," he said. "But every place I go, people keep talking to me about how much they love agriculture and that they want to farm. I'm going to do everything I can to provide more income generating opportunities on the farm."

About 72 percent of the nation's farmers participated in the census.