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Harvest of change: Farm census shows evolving U.S. agriculture

U.S. agriculture - including farms in North Dakota and Minnesota - is evolving in ways both great and small, a federal report says.

Among the changes were more farms, aging farmers and farmers with more at stake financially.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2007 Census of Agriculture, released Wednesday, makes at least one other thing clear, too:

Agriculture remains a big deal in the region.

The value of Minnesota's ag products soared to $13.1 billion in 2007, with North Dakota's ag products valued at $6 billion that year.

A little background:

The farm census, completed every five years, is a complete count of U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them.

It looks at land use and ownership, operator characteristics and production practices, among other things. It also breaks down information to national, state and county levels.

For the 2007 census, farm and ranch operators were asked to return their surveys by February 2008. USDA employees spent a year analyzing and editing the information.

Farmers regarded filling out the 24-page forms as "kind of an annoyance," said Bob Finken, a Douglas, N.D., producer, who estimated he spent half an hour completing the form.

The farm census isn't of much practical value to most farmers, he said.

But the data can be valuable to businesses and government agencies that serve farmers, the USDA says.

People familiar with agriculture won't be surprised by the 2007 census, said Lee Egerstrom, a fellow with Minnesota 2020, a St. Paul-based think tank.

"We're seeing a continuation of longstanding trends," he said.

Withering middle

Both North Dakota and Minnesota gained farmers from 2002 to 2007, with most new farms consisting of 50 acres or less.

For instance, the number of farms in Minnesota with fewer than 10 acres rose from 3,591 in 2002 to 3,687 in 2007.

"Urbanites starting hobby farms," Byron Richard, a Belfield, N.D., farmer and president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, said of the increase in small farms.

Roger Johnson, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner, said many people wouldn't consider farms of such small size to be real farming operations.

Big farms, ones with 2,000 acres or more, also fared relatively well in the 2007 farm census.

Their number rose in Minnesota and held steady in North Dakota.

But the number of mid-sized farms, ones with 1,000 to 2,000 acres, fell sharply in both states to continue a decadeslong pattern of decline.

In 2007, North Dakota had 5,369 farms of 1,000 to 2,000 acres. That was down from 5,994 in 2002 and 10,013 in 1987.

The decline reflects growing pressure for farms to become bigger and more efficient, Richard said.

"We're looking at bipolar agriculture," with mid-sized family farms suffering from the growth of small and big farms, said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Lyons, Neb.-based Center for Rural Affairs.

Older, more at risk

The average age of farmers shot higher, both nationally and regionally.

For instance, North Dakota farmers averaged 55.3 years of age in 2007. That was up from 52.9 years in 2002 and 48.5 years in 1987.

Young people increasingly have a tough time getting started in farming because of harder-to-obtain capital and unfavorable tax laws, said Kevin Paap, a Garden City, Minn., farmer and president of the state Farm Bureau Federation.

The 2007 farm census also reflects outstanding prices for many crops that year.

For instance, the value of North Dakota's ag products nearly doubled from 2002 to 2007, rising from $3.2 billion to $6 billion.

Prices have slumped since then, Richard noted.

The cost of expenses, such as fuel and fertilizer, also shot up from 2002 to 2007, with many expenses remaining at high levels.

With more invested in their crops, farmers face bigger losses if yields are poor or prices tumble.

"The sense I'm getting from farmers is there's a real nervousness about crop prices, expenses and the future," Hassebrook said.