What does the Ag Census Tell Us About the Future of Farms?

Last week, the USDA released the Census of Agriculture, a (nearly) complete count of U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them. Taken only once every five years, the census looks at land use and ownership, operator characteristics, production practices, income and expenditures. So what did this year’s tally say about the current state of agriculture? What can it tell us about its future? And based on this data, what must we be doing more of to support family farms, sustainable agriculture and local food systems?

First, a few bright lights.

The total number of female producers rose by 27% since the last census to 1.23 million. Caveat here: this was the first year that farms were able to list multiple principals involved with making business decisions. Which means that all the partners (so often wives) on family farms who have gone uncounted until now are likely skewing this number. Nonetheless, we do see a rise among women in agriculture—especially among younger producers and on organic farms—and we’re happy to see the USDA finally recognizing the valuable role that these unsung family farm heroes play to keep America fed.

On-farm renewable energy production more than doubled over the past five years. More specially, California is the top state using renewable energy in agriculture with a total of 14,552 farms, solar being the most common system.

Direct-marketed and value-added farm products increased, a sales channel that gives smaller farms more opportunities while strengthening local food systems. Check out our Farm-to-Marketprograms here CAFF & The Farmers Guild for more opportunities to grow these sales channels on your farm and in your community.

Military veterans account for 10 percent of California farmers! Agriculture continues to be a great opportunity for our veterans to find work, reconnect with the land and return to civilian life.

Now onto the grim if not surprising data revealed by the Ag Census:

Once again, the total number of American farms and ranches fell, a 3% decrease overall, totaling a whopping 7,336 farms between 2012 and 2017. Or for a more sobering number to mull upon: at this rate, we’re losing 4 farms a day.

Meanwhile, the average age of farmers continues its unsettling creep upwards. Here in California, that number rose to 59.2, up from 57.9 in 2012.

And lastly, 56% of farms and ranches had negative net cash farm income in 2017, highlighting the continued economic hurdles our farmers face and the need for a majority of those growing food to rely on off-farm income to put food on their own tables.

While we’ve made great strides in promoting family farms and local food, these numbers reflect a dangerous trend we’ve been fighting for decades: the continued consolidation of our food and agricultural system; prices that farmers can fetch for their goods simply not keeping pace with the skyrocketing costs of land, housing, labor and supplies; cheaper food imports from abroad; large-scale mechanization accessible only to the farmers who can afford it; and government policies that don’t adequately support smaller-scale farms, the diversity of agricultural operators, localized food systems or the next generation of farmers.

It’s an uphill battle, but we at CAFF & The Farmers Guild continue to offer programs for family farmers and push for policies in Sacramento and DC aimed at leveling the playing field, giving the next generation of farmers a leg up and assuring we keep our rural economies strong, healthy and equitable. But we can’t do it alone. As the agricultural census (stretching back to 1840) shows, where farmers once comprised the majority of Americans, today that number is just 1%. Which means to fight for a healthy and sustainable agriculture future, we need not just farmers but everyone who eats to take a stand. Consider joining or making a donation to CAFF & The Farmers Guild to give voice to those who steward our land and keep us fed. Thank you.