5 takeaways for NY agriculture from the farm census

Miles Gendebien checking on his goats after a baseball game. He and his brothers raise goats as a way to be involved in farm chores without doing the dangerous work of caring for cows. As his father Blake said, “When I was a kid we fed the cows with wheelbarrows and scoops, but now it's skid steers, tractors, large feeder mixers. I can’t have them do the things I was doing. It’s too dangerous. But I worry that I wouldn't be able to attract their interest at an older age. So the goats are working out as something to keep their interest.” Photo: Martha Cooper/TAUNY

Miles Gendebien checking on his goats after a baseball game. Part of the TAUNY exhibit now in Canton. Photo: Martha Cooper/TAUNY

Yesterday, the USDA released its first run of data from the census of agriculture conducted in 2012. It's the first time we've had new numbers about what's happening on farms in five years.

I summarized the snapshot in my story this morning. Here are the big points:

1. New York didn't crack the top ten nationwide in number of farms, total sales, crop sales, or livestock sales.

New York has 35,538 farms (or at least it did in 2012 when the census was conducted). That's a 2% dip from 2007.  Most of that decrease is attributed to the loss of 1,411 farms earning less than $50,000 a year.The amount of land in production did nudge up by about 10,000 acres.

Still, New York's overall decrease is smaller than the nationwide average of a 4.3% loss. Bloomberg analyzes it this way: "Fewer farms. Richer farmers."

I got an interesting call this morning from Girard Monnat, columnist for the Empire State Farmer newspaper. He argues the narrative that small farmers are disappearing is "overplayed". He points particularly to the massive increase of Amish farms in northern New York. "There's been an influx of Amish in the Bombay-Helena area, in Burke and Chateaugay, and across northern Franklin and Clinton counties," Monnat says. "There's affordable land for Amish families coming from Ohio and Pennsylvania." Monnat says he believes these kinds of farms are severely undercounted in the methodology used by the USDA agriculture census.

2. New York farms generate a whole lot of economic activity, and it's been growing.

Total agricultural sales in New York increased 23% to a whopping $5.41 billion. Digging a little deeper, crop sales increased 44% to $2.2 billion. That's a huge jump for a state highly dependent on dairy sales. A lot of that may be attributed to high corn prices.

3. New York farmers are just a touch younger than the national average.

The average New York farmer is 57.1 years old, about a year older than in 2007, but a year younger than the national average of 58.3.

4. There's a new generation of farmers working the land in New York. It may not be big, but it's there.

In addition to increases in the number of farmers in the 55-74 year old category – most likely veteran farmers getting older – the number of farmers under the age of 34 increased by 14%. That's 270 more young farmers than there were in 2007.

5. Off-farm jobs remain super important to agriculture.

42% of New York farmers report another job as their primary occupation. That's a 4% drop from 2007. But still, almost half of all farmers say farming isn't their primary job.

For a more national snapshot, take a look at Modern Farmer's summary.

This first round of data really is just a quick snapshot. We don't know, for example, what kind of farms decreased – dairy? vegetable? We don't know what kind of crops generated those skyrocketing sales. The USDA will be releasing that data later this spring.

I'm most interested to find out how much the explosion of interest in local produce has translated into actual economic activity and farm growth during this period. What do you see in the numbers? What will you be looking for?


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