Ag census shows number of Minn. farms holds stableby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
The traditional family farm is getting more scarce and large farms are producing more and more of our food. That's one of the findings of the 2007 Census of Agriculture, released today by the U.S. Agriculture Department. But the census also indicates there's still hope for smaller operations.
St. Paul, Minn. — The census is a snapshot of U.S. agriculture that comes out every five years. Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson said it's a measuring stick of the industry.
"Minnesota still remains a dominate force in agriculture on the national picture," said Hugoson. "We're ranking number seven among all the states and I think that's fairly significant."
Hugoson says Minnesota's farm income rose sharply during the years the census covered. He says the farm income figures are some of the most significant in the census. Average net income per farm roughly doubled between 2002 and 2007. But Hugoson says while income rose, the cost of farming went up almost as rapidly.
"Particularly in the areas of energy, I think there was something like about a 90 percent increase for fuel, fertilizer, those things that are derived from oil," said Hugoson.
Overall, the census said the number of farms in Minnesota actually increased slightly, to just under 81,000. Nearly all the growth occurred in the very smallest operations, hobby farms, and in the largest farms. The number of farms with annual sales of over a half-million dollars a year increased 77 percent in Minnesota over the last five years.
High costs for supplies, land and equipment continue to favor large operations. The bigger size allows them to produce more crops at a lower cost. Middle-sized operations, the traditional family farm, continued to shrink in number. The number of farms with annual sales between $50,000 and $99,000 fell by almost one-fifth in the last five years.
However, not all categories of family farms declined. At least one showed rapid growth. For the first time, the census of agriculture includes information on organic farms. According to the census, in 2007 there were 718 Minnesota farms producing organic crops. That's a 66 percent gain from the best previous estimate, a 2005 state report. Jim Riddle runs an organic farm outreach program for the University of Minnesota and he said organic food should be a growth area for years to come.
"It's still a supply and demand driven market and there's just a very strong demand for organic products," said Riddle.
Organic food sales have grown at an annual rate of 15 percent or better for the past decade in the U.S. The census of agriculture puts the value of Minnesota organic production in 2007 at about $40 million. Riddle said one thing that attracts farmers to organic production are the generally higher prices they're paid compared to conventional agriculture. Right now, he said organic corn brings over $9 a bushel compared to about $3.50 on the conventional market.
"The organic market has remained strong and stable," said Riddle. "And farmers want stability in demand and prices and that's something that the organic market has delivered."
Organic production is not the only thing changing in Minnesota agriculture; some minority groups have increased their presence as well. The number of ethnic Asian farmers almost quadrupled between 2002 and 2007, though it's still a relatively small number, about 148 farmers. The number of Latino farmers though fell sharply in the latest census.
The census numbers were released at a time of increasing uncertainty about the future of agriculture compared to the last few years. The expense of farming continues to rise, but the sale price of crops and livestock are falling. Those changing economic conditions will influence what the next census says about the state of agricultural.
- All Things Considered, 02/04/2009, 5:55 p.m.