All this week, we've been reviewing the new Farm Futures study of recently released Census of Agriculture documents offers a telling glimpse of U.S. agricultural profitability.
Farm Futures regularly calculates financial ratios and performance for more than 3,000 counties across the country. To develop our latest rankings of Best Places to Farm, we analyzed ag census data from 2002, 2007 and 2012 to calculate countywide financial performance, including return on assets, profit margin, asset turnover and average net farm income.
Our rankings are based on the same measures used in other industries: profitability, financial efficiency, and growth.
What did we learn? To be sure, the Midwest has long been the cornerstone of food production in this country. But as our study points out, profits can be found from sea to shining sea. In fact, the most profitable places to farm in the U.S. rose to the top, often despite adversity.
Drought, soaring input costs and political interference didn't keep these growers from returns that would make even the high-fliers in Silicon Valley blush. Profit margins topping 35% and 15% to 20% return on assets make these farms look like the stuff of blue chip dreams.
Being a mature industry didn't keep farmers in our top regions from reinventing their operations with new technology and new enterprises. Whether they were figuring out how to grow corn and soybeans on the frozen fields of North Dakota, or creating a wine industry outside of Cleveland, Ohio, The Best Places To Farm made something old very new again.
While our findings were weighted with results from the most recent count, 2012 wasn't exactly a boom time for many sectors. Record high corn and soybean prices and long-term drought devastated livestock producers. Nursery and greenhouse operations remain depressed by the housing bust and lingering effects of the financial collapse.
Yet, areas with a strong presence in both, from the Bacon Belt of the South to urban counties selling shrubs in the suburbs, were among the top-earning counties on our list.
The map of our best places shows five distinct regions of profitability across the country, some of them headquartered in surprising places.
Like the desert, home to the top county on our list, Yuma, Ariz. Irrigation makes the self-described "winter vegetable capital of the world" a powerhouse. If you enjoy a salad In January, odds are the lettuce was grown there. Water and labor issues continue to pose challenges across the West, but high-value crops keep financial performance strong.
States with a strong livestock industry did well, and the top four – Alabama, Delaware, Arkansas and Georgia – are leading producers of poultry, which made the most of expensive grain thanks to high feed conversion rates. But the region with premium protein, home to the cattle feedlots on the western Plains, also stood out, despite its own hurdles.
Where does your county stand? Check out our listing of nearly 3,000 counties, along with a special video that gives you an closer look at our latest report. The video is below. It's the story of a very old business, told in a very new way.
Then, take a look at our in-depth reviews of each geography, complete with short farmer profiles and an examination of what's to come.
Do You Live In One of Farm Futures' 'Best Places to Farm'?
Best Places to Farm: Northern Plains and Southeast Boast Energy, Poultry Profitability
Best Places to Farm: West Coast, Pacific Northwest Flaunt High Returns and Hot Demand
Best Places to Farm: Western Corn Belt, Rust Belt Have Easy Access, Agritourism