3 Takeaways From the USDA’s 2022 Farm Census | Civil Eats

What the Latest Farm Census Says About the Changing Ag Landscape

In this week’s Field Report, we take a look at the USDA’s 2022 Farm Census, the new Climate Corps, the costs of methane digesters, and more.

Dairy farmer Lisa Kaiman walks with a herd of heifers on her 33 acre farm March 27, 2007 in Chester, Vermont. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Dairy farmer Lisa Kaiman walks with a herd of heifers on her 33-acre farm March 27, 2007 in Chester, Vermont. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Texas has more farms than any other state, but California generates the most money from farming. Young farmers under 35 are more prevalent in northern states. In 2022, nearly 18,000 farms grew blueberries compared to 16,000 farms in 2017.

These are the kinds of data that can be gleaned from the Census of Agriculture, a massive, wide-ranging survey the federal government has been conducting regularly since 1840.

Now completed every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the census asks detailed questions about who is farming, what they’re growing, and the practices they use, as well as where their farms are located and the economics of it all. Given the essential nature of food and fiber production, it’s crucial to understand as much as possible about the country’s farm landscape, and the resulting data can be then spliced and diced to understand and identify trends and challenges.

For decades, American farms have been disappearing while those that remain have been growing in size. And between 2017 and 2022, that trend picked up steam.

NASS just released the initial, big-picture results from the 2022 Census, which also played a central role at the USDA’s annual outlook forum. (State and county profiles are forthcoming, and additional data on specific topics such as irrigation and aquaculture will also follow later this year.) And while it will likely take a while for the larger ramifications on the future of food, farming, and the climate to truly become clear, some of the top-line changes in this year’s census have big implications. Here are a few initial takeaways.

Farm Loss and Consolidation Accelerated

For decades, American farms have been disappearing while those that remain have been growing in size. And between 2017 and 2022, that trend picked up steam. The overall number of farms decreased by about 142,000. That 7 percent decline “is a larger percentage decrease than what has been seen in the last 20 years,” said NASS’s Bryan Combs. Farm numbers decreased in every size category except one: Those operating 5,000 acres or more. Large farms now control 42 percent of the farmland in the country. From an economic perspective, 75 percent of the country’s total value of agricultural production now comes from farms with $1 million or more in sales.

These conclusions are especially relevant because while previous Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue publicly acknowledged that the system he presided over was mainly designed to help big farms thrive, Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he wants to change that dynamic. Since he took office in 2021, he has tried to simultaneously support large-scale production and the influential companies that drive and profit from it while investing in new markets for small farms and regional infrastructure.

“The question is: Can we do better? Can we aim higher?” he said at the forum, speaking to the loss of farms and continued consolidation. “Can we not only have production agriculture that’s the greatest and best in the world and, at the same time, create an opportunity for small and mid-sized producers to have a way of being prosperous?”

It’s not clear that we can, especially if those large farms continue to grow at the current pace.

More New and Young Farmers, Fewer Black Farmers

America’s farmers are getting older, raising existential questions about who will produce food in the future. Between 2017 and 2022, the average age increased again, from 57.5 to 58.1. However, that number doesn’t tell the whole story, as the number of farmers in the lowest age brackets increased significantly. In 2022, NASS counted an increase of more than 50,000 additional farmers aged 44 or younger. The number of farmers in the census’s “young producers” category increased 4 percent.

There are also signs that some older Americans are getting into agriculture for the first time: The number of “new and beginning producers,” defined as individuals farming for 10 years or less, increased by 11.4 percent and now represents 30 percent of all farmers. Their average age was just over 47.

On a different demographic front, while Vilsack’s USDA has made equity and correcting historic wrongs against Black farmers a priority, their numbers continued to fall during the last census window. The number of farms with Black producers fell by 8 percent, which is just slightly higher than the overall rate of farm loss.

When asked at the forum, Vilsack said he attributed a lot of the losses to the pandemic and pointed to efforts that are ongoing, especially financial assistance programs being administered with American Rescue Plan dollars and investments in local and regional food systems that represent “another opportunity particularly for farmers of color.” USDA also just released an updated equity action plan and is hosting a “National Equity Summit” this week.

Are Solar Panels More Popular Than Cover Crops?

Over the past several years, public, private, and philanthropic funding has been flowing toward helping farmers adopt practices often referred to as “regenerative,” especially planting cover crops and reducing tilling. Given that reality, the officially documented increases in the practices from 2017 to 2022 were relatively paltry. Thirty-eight percent of farms reported using no-till practices, up 1.1 percentage point from 2017. Cover crop acres increased by 2.6 million acres to 18 million total acres, but that’s out of just under 300 million acres of cropland. Meanwhile, the number of certified organic farms decreased (although sales of organic products increased).

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One environmentally friendly practice farmers do seem to be embracing is renewable energy: The number of farms with solar panels increased 30 percent, to close to 117,000.

Read More:
Biden Targets Consolidation in the Meat Industry (Again)
How the Long Shadow of Racism at USDA Impacts Black Farmers in Arkansas—and Beyond
What is the Future of Organic?
On-Farm Solar Grows as Farmers See Rewards—and Risks

Digester Push-Back. Environmental and animal welfare groups have long questioned taxpayer support for methane digesters built to capture methane from industrial pork and dairy confinements and feed it into the power grid as “natural gas.” And in the past week, two advocacy groups released reports detailing criticisms of the systems. First, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) published an analysis showing California’s system, which is the most significant source of public funding for the digesters and costs taxpayers 17 times more than state officials claim. “California’s subsidize-and-incentivize approach to livestock methane is costly for taxpayers and lucrative for factory farm gas producers and investors,” Phoebe Seaton, co-director of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said in a CFS press release.

Then Friends of the Earth U.S. and the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project released their own analysis, which found that dairies with digesters increased their herds 3.7 percent annually, or 24 times the growth rate for overall dairy herd sizes in the states examined. The finding supports a key fault advocates often point to: Because digesters depend on large volumes of manure, their construction could incentivize the growth and consolidation of large industrial facilities, which have other negative impacts on animals, the environment, and communities.

Read More:
Are Dairy Digesters the Renewable Energy Answer or a ‘False Solution’ to Climate Change?
Are Biogas Subsidies Benefiting the Largest Industrial Animal Farms?

Next-Gen Conservation. Last week, USDA announced a new piece of President Biden’s American Climate Corps initiative that will focus on agriculture. Modeled after the historic Civilian Conservation Corps launched in the 1930s, the Working Lands Climate Corps aims to put “at least 100” young people to work on American farms participating in climate-smart agriculture projects. Organizations including nonprofits and state, local, and tribal governments can apply to host corps members through March 8.

Read More:
Young Farmers Are Growing Food for Climate Action and Racial Justice
This Young Climate Activist Has Her Hands in the Soil and Her Eyes on the Future

Dicamba Debacle. On February 6, a federal court stopped the spraying of the controversial pesticide dicamba across millions of acres of cotton and soybeans. Since 2017, the pesticide has caused millions of acres of damage to neighboring farmers’ crops, trees, and other plants due to drift issues. Environmental groups that sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its approval celebrated what they called a “a sweeping victory.” But agricultural groups quickly sprang into action.

At the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture’s (NASDA) recent conference, ag officials from around the country joined together to encourage EPA to “immediately use all available discretion regarding existing stocks to ensure channels of trade are not disrupted.” EPA just issued an order allowing farmers to spray dicamba that was “already in the possession of growers or in the channels of trade” during the 2024 season, which it estimated at “millions of gallons.” NASDA also asked EPA to “fast-track registration prior to the 2025 growing season.”

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Read More:
At Dicamba Trial, Evidence Shows Monsanto Execs Anticipated Pesticide Drift
Beyond Damaging Crops, Dicamba Is Dividing Communities

Country-City Labor Woes. Farmworkers on guestworker H-2A visas in New York say farms are retaliating against them by not inviting them back for additional seasons after they participated in efforts to unionize. A change in state law led to the first farmworker union organized in the state in 2022, and California’s storied United Farm Workers has since started organizing there. In New York’s more urban reaches, a coalition of worker groups released a new report and recommendations to improve conditions for food delivery workers.

Los Deliveristas Unidos won historic protections including a minimum hourly pay rate in 2022, but the group and its allies say that companies like Uber Eats, Doordash, and GrubHub have changed their procedures to adapt to the new reality and penalize workers. The report recommends regulating algorithms and expanding protections such as sick leave and worker’s compensation. “Today, delivery apps are in a race to the bottom and putting New Yorkers at risk,” said Danny Harris, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives, in a press release. “It’s past time to regulate these delivery apps.”

Read More:
What a Surge in Union Organizing Means for Food and Farm Workers
The Next Frontier of Labor Organizing: Food-Delivery Workers

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. Fred Beddall
    Farmland conversion to solar panels is mostly a loss to sustainable agriculture. It means intensified production on the remaining acres. And most of the profits flow to large investors, not farmers who may only get a ground lease. (I'm a full-time farmer on the organic end of the spectrum.)

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