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Agriculture Census Data Shows the U.S. Has More Female Farmers Than Ever

And other key takeaways from the latest Census of Agriculture.
Corn and soybeans grow on a farm near Tipton, Iowa.

Corn and soybeans grow on a farm near Tipton, Iowa.

In the last Census of Agriculture, the average American farmer was white, male, and nearing his sixties. This year's Census, released on Thursday, gives us an updated image, which is still very white, but represents more women farmers than ever before.

Some trends are familiar: Consolidation continues as medium-sized farms shrink and large-scale operations grow ever larger. Others reflect demographic change (as well as updated data collection techniques): Not only are there significantly more female farmers in general, there are more women at the helm of their operations.

The data comes from the United States Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, which conducts the census every five years. This round, which reflects the year 2017, has collected information from the country's 2.04 million farms and ranches. Here are Pacific Standard's key takeaways.

The Future Is Female Farmers

Over the last five years, the number of male farmers fell, while the number of women rose: Female producers now make up 36 percent of farmers, a 27 percent increase from 2012. Now, 56 percent of farms have at least one female producer, although only 38 percent have a female primary producer, the person who makes the most decisions on the farm.

However, the USDA tempers this somewhat in its statement, noting that changes to the survey itself may account for some of this increase. (This was the first time it allowed farms to report multiple primary producers, many of which were women.)

Despite these demographic gains, women still face many barriers in agriculture: Almost two decades after a group of female farmers and ranchers sued the USDA for gender discrimination in its farm loan programs, a 2019 study of female landowners in Iowa found that discrimination continues in less visible ways; for example, female landowners have reported that Farm Service Agency staffers and male tenants pressured them not to make changes to their land that would promote conservation, such as restoring wetlands or planting cover crops.

Large Farms Have Grown Larger

Across the country, the middle is shrinking: Medium-sized farmers are being replaced by increasingly large operations, which take up the most farmland—and the most money. The USDA has been tracking this trend in the agriculture sector for three decades, noting in a 2018 report that "consolidation in crop production has been persistent, increasing in each 5-year Census of Agriculture between 1982 and 2012."

This round is no exception. The new census shows the smallest farms (defined as less than 10 acres) make up 0.1 percent of all farmland, while the largest (at 2,000 or more acres) account for 58 percent. These large farms are also taking the bulk of the profits: Just 5 percent of operations produced 75 percent of all sales in 2017.

This continued consolidation has some agriculture groups worried, including the policy organization National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "If we don’t invest in beginning farmers and the advancement of our family farms, and if we don’t put checks on increasing consolidation in agriculture, we’re going to be at risk of losing the ag of the middle entirely," Juli Obudzinski, NSAC's interim policy director, said in a statement on Thursday.

As the USDA has noted previously, the move toward ever larger, more profitable, and more specialized farms—where large corporations contract out livestock production, or giant farms grow just two crops—has made U.S. agriculture more efficient, but it's also pushed out small farms, created environmental risk, and crushed rural economies.

U.S. Agriculture Is Still Very White

As I wrote last week for Pacific Standard, African-American farmers made up less than 2 percent of all farmers in the U.S. in 2012, due to a long legacy of discrimination within the USDA. Over the last century, their numbers have declined significantly—from 14 percent of U.S. farmers in 1910, to 1.6 percent in 2012—and so have the size and profits of their operations.

In 2017, African-American farmers owned and operated 33,000 farms spanning a total of some four million acres. That's 0.45 percent of acreage nationwide—up slightly from 0.4 percent in 2012.

U.S. agriculture remains overwhelmingly white: The overall demographic data shows that 95 percent of producers are white, 3 percent are Hispanic, 1.7 percent are American Indian or Alaska Native, 1.3 percent are black, and 0.6 percent are Asian.

Renewable Energy Adoption Is Growing

The census captured some other significant changes: The number of farms and ranches using renewable energy producing systems more than doubled from 2012 to 2017. These include solar panels, wind turbines, and methane digesters, which capture biogas from decomposing manure. Still, this number is low overall, making up about 7 percent of U.S. farms and ranches. And since the U.S. agriculture sector accounted for 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, there's plenty of room for improvement.