A comparison: How California farms stack-up around the country

By Don Curlee; the Porterville Recorder

Counting the ways farming in California differs from farming in the rest of the country might result in some surprises, especially for proud Californians.

To begin with, farms in California are about 25 percent smaller on average than those in the rest of the country. The contrast between farming here and farming there is even more remarkable when you consider that the state’s smaller farms outpace those in the rest of the country by producing almost five times the dollar amount per acre. Of course, that means farmers in the Golden State receive more income than those elsewhere.

These characteristics of the country’s farm profile come from information collected in the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the latest every-five-years exercise conducted by the federal government. Comparing data from the most recent census with that from the 2007 effort reveals some memorable results.

Some of those results have been compiled by Emma Knoesen, a research associate and Rachael Goodhue, a professor of Agricultural Resource Economics (ARE) at the University of California, Davis. Their report was published in the May/June issue of Update, published by the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at Davis.

In the conclusion of their report they say: “(The census) indicates that California agriculture remains distinct from U. S. agriculture as a whole, although in both cases farms continue to grow larger in both acreage and market value of production.”

One of the report’s tables shows that almost a quarter of California farms are between one and nine acres, compared to only 11 percent of farms at that size elsewhere in the country. Another quarter of California farms are between 10 and 49 acres, not that different from the rest of the country, and 17 percent fall into that 50 to 179- acre bracket, opposed to 30 percent of farms that are outside the state.

A very telling statistic puts the number of California farms with 2,000 acres or more at 2,434, while the number of farms in the other 49 states with 2,000 acres or more is more than 82,000. Seems that fly-over country has some pretty big spreads, and it isn’t puny backyards where Texans raise their cattle.

Perhaps even more telling is the effect of California’s higher value crops, the vegetables, fruits and specialty commodities. The report says: “The average market value of production per acre of farmland in California was $1,667, compared to $289 in the United States as a whole.”

On average, California farms produced a market value of $547,510, about three times that of other U.S. farms, which averaged $187,097.

Production of high-value fruit and vegetable crops continued in California at about the same pace and in about the same places as reported in the 2007 census. Tree and vine crops dominated the Central Valley counties, and vegetables were the commodities of choice in coastal areas and in the Imperial Valley.

Imperial County registered a strong increase from 2007 to 2012 in the amount of land used to grow vegetables, from less than 69,000 acres in the earlier census to nearly 106,000 acres in 2012. The number of farms growing vegetables there increased as well, from 86 to 105.

Even though the number of California farms decreased from 2007 to 2012, the total market value of their production increased by a little more than 25 percent.

No question, farming is a winner in California and a significant contributor to the state’s economy. If overzealous legislators and social and environmental purists can control themselves enough to leave it alone the state’s different-but-better agriculture can continue to prosper and continue to help overcome world hunger.


2012 Census of Agriculture Reveals New Trends in Farming

There are now 3.2 million farmers operating 2.1 million farms on 914.5 million acres of farmland across the United States, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, released today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Once every five years, farmers, ranchers and growers have the unique opportunity to let the world know how U.S. agriculture is changing, what is staying the same, what’s working and what we can do differently,” said Dr. Cynthia Clark, the retiring head of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, which administered the survey. “Today, we can start to delve into the details.”

Census data provide valuable insight into the U.S. farmer demographics, economics and production practices. Some of the key findings include:

  • Both sales and production expenses reached record highs in 2012. U.S. producers sold $394.6 billion worth of agricultural products, but it cost them $328.9 billion to produce these products.
  • Three quarters of all farms had sales of less than $50,000, producing only 3 percent of the total value of farm products sold while those with sales of more than $1 million – 4 percent of all farms – produced 66 percent.
  • California led the nation with 9 of the 10 top counties for value of sales. Fresno County was number one in the United States with nearly $5 billion in sales in 2012, which is greater than that of 23 states. Weld County, Colorado ranked 9th in the top 10 U.S. counties.
  • The top 5 states for agricultural sales were California ($42.6 billion); Iowa ($30.8 billion); Texas ($25.4 billion); Nebraska ($23.1 billion); and Minnesota ($21.3 billion).
  • Eighty-seven percent of all U.S. farms are operated by families or individuals.
  • Organic sales were growing, but accounted for just 0.8 percent of the total value of U.S. agricultural production. Organic farmers reported $3.12 billion in sales in 2012, up from $1.7 billion in 2007.
  • 57,299 farms produced on-farm renewable energy, more than double the 23,451 in 2007.
  • 474,028 farms covering 173.1 million acres were farmed with conservation tillage or no-till practices.
  • Corn and soybean acres topped 50 percent of all harvested acres for the first time.
  • The largest category of operations was beef cattle with 619,172 or 29 percent of all farms and ranches in 2012 specializing in cattle.

“This information is critical to understanding the conditions of U.S. agriculture and determining future policy,” said incoming NASS Administrator Dr. Joseph T. Reilly. “Today’s data release is the culmination of years’ worth of planning and work that NASS has made openly available for public use.”

Conducted since 1840, the Census of Agriculture accounts for all U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them.

For access to the complete data series and tools to analyze this information, visit www.agcensus.usda.gov. A link to census data will also be available on the USDA Open Data portal, www.usda.gov/data.