Farms and farmland are down while the average age of producers is up again. Those are some of the preliminary findings of the latest survey of agriculture USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack released at the 90th Ag Outlook Forum last week. Vilsack told the Forum in a sneak peak at the Ag Census, due out in full this spring, 72-million farmland acres have been lost to other uses since 1982, though the loss rate has slowed recently. “It’s clear the average age of principal operators in this country, they continue to grow older,” Vilsack said. “What you’ll see from this census is that average age is in excess of 58 years. It has increased by over a year.”
The average increase continues a 20 to 30-year trend and highlights the need to attract young farmers. But farms are down.
“The overall number of farms in this county you’ll find is down, which didn’t surprise me given the lack of disaster assistance in livestock, given feed costs, the strain that livestock producers have seen, and given the drought in 2012 when this census data was collected.”
But Vilsack says very small and very large operations have held steady or have increased, pointing to the need for export programs, trade deals and direct-to-consumer marketing, while mid-sized operations continue to struggle. Vilsack says the new farm bill will help as USDA accelerates in 60-days applications for one key program.
“It’s going to restore livestock disaster assistance which is going to help those folks in the middle who get a snow storm or who have a drought, or feed costs may be difficult, or forage may be difficult to access. It’s going to provide help they didn’t have the last couple of years. There is a continued and significant increase in investment in local and regional food systems and specialty crop production, and organic which is a new entry point for new farmers.”
Vilsack called the farm bill a reform bill that replaces guaranteed direct payments with a safety net that kicks in only when it’s needed, while the bill takes a new approach to conservation with partnerships in eight regional areas.