MOUNT VERNON — The 2007 Census of Agriculture was released in February. Conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it covered any farm in the United States doing $1,000 or more in sales of agricultural products during the census year.
The study counted 2,204,792 farms in the United States. That was an increase of 4 percent from the last agriculture census taken in 2002. This was a net increase of 75,810 farms, leveling a trend of declining numbers of farms since World War II.
Most of the growth in U.S. farm numbers came from small operations where sale of no specific commodity accounted for more than 50 percent of the total value of production. Even though the total number of farms increased nationwide many regions and individual sectors of production showed declines. Farms producing grains, oilseeds, horticulture, cattle and hog operations showed declines in farm numbers.
Nationwide, new farms were found to be smaller and run by younger people. Many of those new farmers worked off the farm for a non-farming income to supplement the farming operation. On average, these new farms had 201 acres of land and $71,000 in annual sales. This compares to an average of 418 acres for all farms with $135,000 in sales.
Ohio bucked the trend of an increase in the number of farms with an overall decrease of about 2 percent.
In Knox County, the census found a decrease in the average size of a farm from 166 acres to 156 acres between 2007 and 2002. This was a decrease of 6 percent compared to the state average of a 2 percent decrease. The number of farms in Knox County increased from 1,258 in 2002 to 1,270 in 2007, an increase of 1 percent. The state data shows a decrease of 2 percent in the number of farms..
OSU Extension Educator Troy Cooper sees some interesting trends in the data from the census, especially as it applies to Knox County.
“There are some things that jumped out at me,” he said. “I think people are moving out to the country onto small acres and people are keeping it in some kind of agriculture production. I think it’s a trend we’re going to continue to see. I think people are going to continue to move out and have some space to grow their own food. They want to be more self-reliant.”
Cooper also said he thought this trend was a big driving force behind the growing popularity of Farmers Markets and locally grown food initiatives.
“I think there are a lot of them doing direct marketing like that,” he said. “They can find more markets that way.”
Statewide the trend toward smaller farms is significant according to ODA policy spokesman Adam Ward.
“We have definitely seen some changes in the state over the last five years and also for the five years covered in the census,” he said. “One thing we have seen is there are more folks getting into the smaller production which is indicated in the overall numbers from the U.S. perspective. We have also begun to see that here, too. We have more people getting involved in growing fruits and vegetables, those types of farms across the state. And there’s a lot of interest in that and that continued into 2008 and 2009 which is great for the state as a whole. And that will bring more value added product to the state. At the same time Ohio — and especially central Ohio — is one of the few areas in the Midwest that is growing. There’s a lot of pressure by the population to continue to grow and expand and take up some of that farm ground. That would account for the loss of some of the acreage in the state. We’ve done a lot of things to try and counter that, through programs like the farmland preservation program and generally trying to think outside the box on how we can affect growth in some of those pressure areas.”
Smaller production farms also offer an alternative for people looking for locally produced, fresh produce. Whether this is a fad or a trend, it does have a positive effect on local economies.
“There’s a trend there of people wanting to, if at all possible, to support their local farmers and support the farm markets,” ward said. “They want to support and have that local produce available to them. That’s something we recognized very early on and we dedicated some funds over the past couple of years to support local farm markets and help those areas grow. We do have the larger segment of agriculture which continues to grow but we do recognize we have to support the smaller production. Many times it’s an added income for a family or another economic opportunity for a family and that can be very important in these economic times.”