Refresh Working Group Members’ Perspectives on the Ag Census

The US Department of Agriculture just released data from its most recent Ag Census. Refresh Working Group members have offered some interesting insights based on this new data, and we trace some of those assessments here. Commenting on the Ag Census’s fiding that “56.4% of farms lost money in 2017,” Kevin Krueger from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital argues that the “[c]urrent system isn’t working for many, producers or consumers.” Looking at data on the decline of mid-size farms, agricultural engineer Amanda Ramcharan raises another important issue: “Is agtech going to be biased towards wealthy large farms or will we be more democratic about agtech which would benefit a larger number of farmers?” Given those concerns, RWG members are using the findings from the Ag Census to help guide efforts to reshape how we produce food in the US.

More Female Farmers Than Ever

Food Tank notes that the USDA didn’t start counting women as farmers until 1978. The 2017 Ag Census reports an almost 27 percent increase in female farmers from the previous count in 2012. Audra Mulkern of the Female Farmer Project has been shedding light on the importance of the Ag Census for years. In fact, Barbara Rater, the Director of the Census and Survey Division at USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), appeared on The Female Farmer Project podcast in 2017 urging women to make sure they were counted in this latest census. To facilitate that, the USDA changed how it counts farmers, allowing farms to list four producers, as opposed to just one “principal operator.” Given this change, Mulkern is not surprised at the sharp increase in female farmers; she comments that the 27 percent increase “is right about where I expected the numbers to be.”

More Young Farmers Needed

Offering an extensive analysis on its Twitter feed, the National Young Farmers Coalition argues that the Ag Census confirms its concerns about farm succession: “The number of #youngfarmers is not keeping pace with the number of farmers aging out of the field. Primary producers under 35 increased by nearly 2,000 2012 to 2017, but primary producers over 65 now outnumber farmers under 35 by 6.41 to 1.” Farmwave echoes that point: “Well, this is kind of what people have been saying for awhile now… succession is a problem so there’s no one left but those who traditionally were farmers.”

The Young Farmers also call for greater racial diversity across every age group of farmer owners, a group the Ag Census reports is 95 percent white. They also note this disparity: 83 percent of farm workers, but only 3 percent of farm owners, are Latinx.

In their podcast reviewing the Ag Census, the Young Farmers reach a straightforward conclusion in light of these findings: “We need #morefarmers.” They also discuss the need to continue analyzing this data to determine how federal programs can help make farming in the US viable for more people.

More Data To Leverage

The breadth of Ag Census data and tools the USDA has made available on its own website will help to inform data-driven insights on the U.S. agriculture sector for some time. Combined with recent efforts by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, in collaboration with NORC at the University of Chicago, to make data more accessible to researchers, this growing body of data represents a real opportunity for developing new data-driven tools, insights, and strategies to address these ongoing challenges and improve the way we produce food in the US.

Ben Thelen
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