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Ag Census shows less farms in Northeast; dairy farms disappearing

A tractor delivers silage to dairy cows inside a barn
DISAPPEARING DAIRY: The number of farms in New York and Pennsylvania has dropped, according to the 2017 Ag Census, with many of those being dairy farms.
Despite Northeast losses, farms increased in Maryland, New Jersey and West Virginia.

Much of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast is following the national trend of farms: more very small and very large operations, and less farms in the middle of the pack.

According to the 2017 Ag Census, the number of U.S. farms fell by 3.8% to 2.04 million operations, the lowest since the 1997 Ag Census. Total acres in farming is just over 900 million acres, a 1.5% drop from the previous census.

The data show much of the farm growth is in very small farms — 22% more farms with less than 9 acres — and 3.5% more farms of 2,000 acres or more. The losses happened in the middle with 10.9% less farms of between 50 and 179 acres and 8.9% less farms of between 180 and 499 acres.

The average farm size is 441 acres, up from 434 acres in the 2012 census. Overall net farm income fell to $43,053, a 1.59% drop from the previous census.

Alarming trends

The overall number of farms in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast fell by a higher percentage than at the national level.

The number of farms in Pennsylvania dropped 10% to 53,157 operations. There are 7.3 million acres in farming, a 5.5% decrease, while the average farm size is 137 acres, a 5.38% increase.

Mark O’Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, says the farm numbers are not encouraging.

“Although we knew there was going to be a significant drop in the number of farms, seeing a decrease of more than 10% over a five-year period on paper was disheartening,” he says.

While the census shows net farm income actually up in the Keystone State, dairy and crop farmers are not doing well.

“Dairy farms have been especially hard hit as indicated in the substantial drop in dairy operations between the 2012 and 2017 census. In addition, we have learned from USDA that the number of dairy farms decreased by another 370 farms in 2018 with the total number of dairy farms falling to 6,200 in 2018,” he says. The 2012 census shows 7,829 dairy farms.

The number of beef farms went up 10%, indicating that many dairy farms likely transitioned to beef.

“There are also other factors that could have contributed to the number of lost farms, including retiring farmers who sold off their land for development. Many farmers don’t have 401Ks or pension plans, so they rely on their land as their retirement policy,” he says. “It is possible that some farm owners wanted to keep their land in farming, but they did not have children interested in becoming the next generation on the farm or they could not find a farmer willing or able to purchase their farm.”

The number of farms in New York, 33,438, fell by 5.9%. The census shows 6.8 million acres in farming, down 4.4%. Average farm size is 205 acres, up 1.5%.

The number of very small and very large farms increased while farms in the middle decreased, mirroring the national trend. The number of dairy farms decreased 14% to 4,648 farms. The number of beef farms increased 11% to 7,310 farms.

Jenny Ifft, assistant professor of farm and agribusiness management at Cornell, says that while the overall number of farms is down, the data also show farms are diversifying.

“Farm-related income is up in forest products, agritourism,” she says. “You also have a lot of vegetable production. You have things like asparagus and rhubarb, kale being produced. Horseradish farms are up. It does look like on some level that farmers are innovating.”

The number of farms also decreased in Delaware with 6% less farms, 2,302, than five years ago. Every farm size category showed losses except for farms between 500 and 1,999 acres.

Total land in farming is 525,324 acres, a 3.2% decrease. Average farm size is 228 acres, up 9.6%.

More farms elsewhere

Other states in the region saw more farms counted.

In Maryland, the total number of farms is 12,429, a 1.41% increase. Land in farming is 1.9 million acres, a 2% decrease, while average farm size is 160 acres, a 3.6% decrease.

Maryland followed the national trend with more very small and very large farms and less farms in the middle. Most farms, 7,891, are between 10 and 179 acres.

New Jersey has 9,883 farms, up 9% from the 2012 census. Total land in farming increased 2.6% to 734,084 acres. Average farm size decreased 6.3% to 74 acres.

The number of farms in West Virginia is 23,622, up 9% from the previous census. Land in farming is 3.6 million acres, up 1.5%. The average farm size is 155 acres, down 7%.

Most farms in West Virginia, 16,075, are between 10 and 179 acres.

Less farms in New England

The largest number of farms is in Maine with 7,600 farms, though that number is down 7% from the 2012 census. Total acreage in farming is 1.3 million.

Massachusetts has the second highest number of farms, 7,241, though it's also less than the previous census. Vermont has the second highest acreage at 1.2 million acres. The state has 6,808 farms, down 7.2% from the 2012 census.

Connecticut has 5,521 farms and 381,539 acres in farming, both down from the previous census. New Hampshire has 4,123 farms and 425,393 acres in farming, both down from the previous census.

Rhode Island has 1,043 farms and 56,864 acres in farming, both down from the previous census.

Like the national trend, most states saw an increase in the number of very small and very large farms with farms in the middle decreasing. Connecticut and Rhode Island saw farm losses in each farm size category.

Most farms in New England are between 10 and 49 acres. The largest farm category in Vermont and Maine is between 50 and 179 acres.

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