By Laurie Greene, Associate Editor, with Sources: USDA, CDFA


This week, USDA released preliminary data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, a complete count, taken every five years, of America’s farms and ranches and the people who operate them. The 2012 Census provides a snapshot of a rural America that remains stable in the face of difficult economic times. While the data do not paint a perfect picture, they do tell a story of the unlimited potential and growing opportunity in modern rural America.


California continues to top all states in market value of agricultural products sold with $42.6 billion versus the next state, Iowa, with 30.8 billion.


Census data indicate that the loss of farmland has slowed significantly since 2007, which means that while a total of 72 million acres of farmland have been lost since the 1982 census, we have begun to stem the tide.


In California, farm acreage was up only slightly (<1%) in 2012. New tools in the 2014 Farm Bill should help to further slow and perhaps even reverse this trend in some areas of the country.


The results reinforce what we have known for many years: the farm population is aging.


California farmers tend to be older (60.1 years), on average, than in the rest of the country (58.3).


While that is a concern, the national data also show that the number of young farmers increased slightly and the number of minority farm and ranch principal operators increased dramatically, reflecting the changing face of America as a whole.


However, in California, the number of farmers older than 74 years old increased by 13%, and the number of young farmers (less than 25 years old) decreased by 13%. Most principal farm operators in the state tend to be in the 55 to 64 years of age category.


The state’s minority operators increased in all categories, with the exception of female operators (-7%).


We are hopeful that USDA policies that attract and retain the next generation of talent into rural America will help to continue this trend.


The number of small and very large farms held steady. This reflects, in part, USDA’s recent push to help farmers and ranchers diversify into new markets, including local and regional food systems, specialty crops and organic production, and expand market access for American farm products overseas.


Our state showed growth in the number of farms with less than 10 acres (32%) and greater than 1,000 acres (5.7%). California farms with annual incomes less than $50,000 continue to predominate, with slightly fewer than in 2007.


The 2014 Farm Bill will do even more to expand support for beginning farmers and new market opportunities for all producers.


At the same time, we cannot ignore that devastating weather events increasingly impacts producers’ bottom lines. The prolonged drought and lack of disaster assistance over the past several years have made it even tougher for livestock producers and mid-sized farms to survive and thrive, and the data reflects that reality.


We must do more to protect the middle—farms and ranches that are middle-sized and mid-income—and ensure that they can access resources and protections to help them thrive. Here too, the farm bill will provide much-needed relief and stability through guaranteed disaster assistance.


More than anything, the census illustrates the power of data. Data from the census helps to inform smart policymaking that makes life easier for farmers and ranchers. It helps to stand up programs and initiatives that benefit young and beginning farmers and ranchers just starting out; improve access to resources that help women, veteran and minority farmers and ranchers thrive; and help farmers and ranchers diversify into new markets, including local and regional food systems, specialty crops and organic production.


We are on the right track, but there is still more work to do. In order to survive, American agriculture must continue to embrace innovation and diversity in crop production, markets, people and land use across the agricultural sector.