As the landscape starts to green up, our thoughts turn to the upcoming growing season. No one is more eager for it than Vermont’s farmers.
Recent data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service Northeastern Regional Field Office show that, despite tough economic times and ongoing workforce challenges, our farming community is faring quite well.
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the Northeast is holding its own. Across the region, there are 32,336 New England farms and ranches.
The number of farms is down for New England by 7% from 2012, with most of the decrease being attributed to the number of farms of 10 to 179 acres being lost, according to King Whetstone, Northeastern Regional Field Office director.
The Census tells the story of American agriculture and is an important part of our history. First conducted in 1840 in conjunction with the decennial Census, the Census of Agriculture accounts for all U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them. After 1920, the Census happened every four to five years. By 1982, it was regularly conducted once every five years.
Today, NASS sends questionnaires to nearly 3 million potential U.S. farms and ranches. Conducted since 1997 by USDA NASS — the federal statistical agency responsible for producing official data about U.S. agriculture — it remains the only source of comprehensive agricultural data for every state and county in the nation and is invaluable for planning the future.
Here are some of the key New England highlights and new trends:
— The number of female producers increased by 8% from 2012.
— The total value of production of all products is $2.75 billion, a decrease of 3% from $2.83 billion in 2012.
— Organic farm numbers increased by 2% from 2012.
— Value of sales is $232 million for organic farming, up from $144 million in 2012.
— New and beginning producers with 10 years or less of farming comprised of 17,352 producers.
— And producers with military service was published for the first time, with 5,558 producers represented.
It is also worth particular note that the Census data shows more younger farmers nationwide, which is good news for the longevity of the industry.
The average age of the American farmer is now 57.5. According to the Census data, there were more than 321,000 young farmers (under the age of 35) in the U.S. That count is up from 2012, when there were 208,000.
In an analysis done by the site Civil Eats, “while that might sound like a sizable leap, the numbers are complicated by the fact that the USDA only recently began allowing farms to list more than one ‘operator’ — meaning children of farm owners can now be listed along with their parents. Since more than 100,000 of those young farmers — nearly the entire difference — are part-owners or tenants of the farm, the overall percentage is only up by 2%, from 7.6 to 9.4% of total farmers.”
But, the main cause for concern is that the number is not keeping pace with the growth of farmers over 65 — who now outnumber farmers under 35 by more than 6 to 1.
The article goes on: “These relatively static numbers reinforce the need for a new generation in agriculture. But young farmers often face a number of challenges when trying to get started. Many carry with them student debt that makes affording land — much less investing in sustainable projects — close to impossible.”
It then becomes key to create areas where beginning farmers have access to funds and resources they need to start out strong.
Here in Vermont we can be proud of the strength of our farms.
In 2017, there were 6,808 farms reported to the Census, compared to 5,877 in 1987 and a high of 7,338 in the last 20 years. The average size of a Vermont farm in 2017 was 175 acres, compared to 240 acres in 1987 and 177 acres in 2007. The total cropland reported in the state was just over 479,000 acres. The largest number (2,188) of farms in Vermont were reported to be between 50 and 179 acres in 2017; the next smallest segment, 10 to 49 acres, had 1,924 farms by count — those two representing the majority.
In 2017, Franklin County reported the largest number of farms (729), followed by Addison (720) and Windsor (677). Rutland County reported 614 farms; Washington County, 553.
It is encouraging our agricultural state can remain vibrant. It speaks well to our heritage — and to the future.