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A closer look at Northeast ag census numbers

Dig deeper and you will find interesting trends across the region.

5 Min Read
A field with rows of crops
SHRINKING FARMS: Much of the region is following the national trend of fewer farms overall, but larger farm operations. tamara_kulikova/Getty Images

The 2022 Census of Agriculture, published by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, points to a continuation of consolidation trends that have persisted across the heartland over the past couple decades: Farm numbers are shrinking, but farm sizes are growing larger.

A graph showing number of farms versus average farm size

In 2022, USDA reported 1.9 million farms in the U.S., down 7% from five years prior.

But during that time, average farm size increased 5% to 463 acres, reflecting continued consolidation of small- and medium-sized farms into larger enterprises.

Business governance and legal structure was a hot topic at farmer meetings this past winter. As farms grow larger physically and fiscally — U.S. farm income broke records previously set in the 1970s and 1940s in 2022 — operators are turning to more sophisticated methods of running their operations.

The number of families and individuals, partnerships, and other entities declined 8% in the past five years.

During that same time, the number of farm corporations increased 9%, indicating that larger farms are opting for legally structured business organizations to ensure feasible transitions to the next generations.

Below is some state-specific data for states in the Northeast, and Michigan and Ohio.

Pennsylvania

The Keystone State saw a 7.7% drop in farms to 49,053 operations. Acres in farming totaled 7.05 million, down 3% from 2017.

The number of farms between 50 and 179 acres was 17,817, down 10%. The smallest farms, under 10 acres, also declined, reversing a big jump seen in 2017.

Meanwhile, the number of large farms — 1,000 to 2,000 acres, or more — continues to increase.

The census showed 642 farms of between 1,000 and 1,999 acres, and 182 farms of 2,000 acres in size, most ever for both categories.

Dairy farms continue to decline. There were 4,027 dairy farms counted in the census, down a whopping 41% since 2017.

The number of cows totaled 455,651 head, down from 527,617.

For perspective, there were more than 11,000 dairy farms in the state in the 1997 ag census.

Michigan

The number of farms in Michigan declined by 4.3% to 45,581. Total farmland declined 3% to 9.47 million acres.

Unlike other states, Michigan saw an increase in the smallest farms of less than 10 acres. Midsize farms, from 50 to 499 acres, declined while the number of farms between 1,000 and 1,999 acres also declined.

There were 771 farms of 2,000 acres or more, the highest number ever.

The largest sector by number of farms was forage operations, at 16,651 farms. Soybean operations were the second-largest sector by number of farms, at 10,872. Grain corn farms were behind that at 9,745 farms.

Ohio

The Buckeye State saw numbers that were consistent with national data in overall decline of farms and acres in farmland.

There were 76,009 farms counted, down 2.3%, and 13.65 million acres of farmland, down 2.2%. But farms between 10 and 179 acres increased, and farms between 1,000 and 1,999 acres decreased.

The smallest farms, under 10 acres, decreased while the largest farms, over 2,000 acres, increased to their highest level, at 928 operations.

Forage operations, at 30,365 farms, represented the largest sector by number of farms. Behind that were soybean operations, at 22,877, and corn grain operations, at 21,144.

New York

The Empire State saw total acres in farmland drop to 6.5 million, down 5.3% from 2017.

Farms are also getting bigger, too, while numbers of small- and medium-sized farms declined. Farms 50 to 179 acres dropped 7% to 10,959. Farms between 1,000 and 2,000 acres or more were at their highest numbers ever.

The number of dairy farms also declined. The census showed 2,783 dairy farms, a 40% drop from 2017. But the number of cows increased to 631,999 head, the highest number since 2012.

The aging farmer … myth?

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack expressed concern at the overall statistics following USDA’s release of the 2022 Census of Ag, further noting that the average operator age in 2022 rose to 58.1 years old from 57.5 years old five years prior.

“This survey is a wake-up call,” Vilsack said. “It’s asking the critical question of us a country: Are we OK with losing that many farms? Are we OK with losing that much farmland? Or is there a better way?”

Even though the data looks concerning at first glance, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of agriculture. Table 52 of the 2022 Census of Agriculture highlights producer characteristics and shows a couple of interesting insights.

Yes, farmers are growing older at a rapid rate — there is no denying that. Over 63% of farmers in the 2022 Census of Ag were age 55 or older. But younger generations have been returning to the farm in the past decade.

Operators under the age of 25 increased 12% in the past five years, ages 25 to 34 increased 2%, and ages 35 to 44 increased 9% during that time.

Further evidence the younger generation is coming back to the farm en masse? Five years ago, only 27% of producers had been operating a farm business for 10 or fewer years. In 2022, that proportion had grown to 30%.

The past two decades have provided some of the best returns to agriculture in the history of this country. This has improved the financial viability of farms and allowed operations to grow not only in farm size, but also operator quantity.

After years of the media bemoaning the “aging farmer,” it seems like there are increasing opportunities for younger generations to take the helm.

For more information, find the complete 2022 Census of Agriculture publication at nass.usda.gov.

About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

Jacqueline Holland

Grain market analyst, Farm Futures

Holland grew up on a dairy farm in northern Illinois. She obtained a B.S. in Finance and Agribusiness from Illinois State University where she was the president of the ISU chapter of the National Agri-Marketing Association. Holland earned an M.S. in Agricultural Economics from Purdue University where her research focused on large farm decision-making and precision crop technology. Before joining Farm Progress, Holland worked in the food manufacturing industry as a financial and operational analyst at Pilgrim's and Leprino Foods. She brings strong knowledge of large agribusiness management to weekly, monthly and daily market reports. In her free time, Holland enjoys competing in triathlons as well as hiking and cooking with her husband, Chris. She resides in the Fort Collins, CO area.

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