Minnesota outpaces country in farm losses

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles related to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Subsequent stories will publish as local statistics become available.


By Greg Schieber

Caledonia Argus


Every five years the United States Department of Agriculture conducts a Census of Agriculture during which they gather statistics on farms that sell more than $1,000 worth of farm products during the census year. The most recent Ag Census was conducted in 2012, and the preliminary results were released last month with the full report due out in May.

What follows is an overview and brief analysis of some of the preliminary national and state-wide results. For many readers, the results will confirm the anecdotal evidence observable first hand and frequently discussed in cafes and farmers’ coops around the Midwest. Nevertheless, some of the numbers may cause surprise in their magnitude and simultaneously provide an opportunity to reflect on short and long trends in Minnesota agriculture.


Quantity & size

During the 2007 to 2012 census cycle, the total number of farms in the U.S. declined by 4.3 percent to a total of 2,109,363. In Minnesota, the number of farms decreased by approximately 8 percent from 80,992 to 74,537 during the same time period. In contrast, Minnesota experienced a growth of 153 farms during the 2002 and 2007 census cycle and a decline of 2,084 farms between 1997 and 2002.

Minnesota ranks ninth among all states in the number of farms, with fewer than neighboring Iowa but slightly more than Wisconsin.

The overall number of acres in farm production decreased both nationwide (0.8 percent) and in Minnesota (3.3 percent). The decrease in the number of farms in consideration with the area being farmed resulted in an increase in average farm size. Average farm size increased nationally 3.8 percent from 418 acres to 434 acres, and in Minnesota approximately 5.1 percent from 332 acres to 349 acres.

The decline in the number of farms in Minnesota was most concentrated among middle-sized farms with 81 percent of the decline occurring in the 50–499 acre categories (nationally 83 percent) while farms of 1,000 acres or more saw a 1.2 percent increase (nationally 1.1 percent).



The national average age of the American farmer is 58.3, up from 57.1 as measured in the 2007 census. Minnesota has a slightly lower average at 56.6, up from 55.3 in 2007.

Only 18 percent of Minnesota principal farm operators are under the age of 45, with only 7 percent under age 35. Meanwhile, one out of every four Minnesota farmers is over the age of 65. Nationally, 16 percent of principal farm operators are under age 45, with only 6 percent under the age 35, and one out of every three farmers is over age 65.

Since the 2007 ag census, the number of farmers under the age of 35 increased nationally by slightly less than 2 percent. In Minnesota, however, the number of farmers in this critical age group declined by 4 percent.

Only 48 percent of farmers nationwide declared farming as their principal occupation, while in Minnesota the same number rests at 53 percent. The number of minority farmers in Minnesota rose 14 percent. Approximately 9 percent of Minnesota principal farm operators are female.



Ag sales increased nationally by one-third, rising to an average of $187,093 in sales per farm. Nevertheless, 75 percent of U.S. farms earn less than $50,000 per year with larger farms being responsible for the higher average. Minnesota’s average market value of products sold tops $285,000 per farm with 55 percent of farms earning less than $50,000 per year.

Minnesota ranks seventh in livestock sales and fourth overall in crop sales, falling behind California, Iowa and Illinois. Minnesota ranks fifth in overall ag sales, surpassed only by California, Iowa, Texas and Nebraska.


Overall trends

Even during a period of record farm income, the continuing national trend toward fewer, larger farms and older farm operators continues to advance relatively unimpeded in the Midwest. While much of the Midwest and parts of the South continue to experience a decrease in the number of farms and quantity of land being farmed, New England and regions in the Mountain West are experiencing increases in the same categories. Farms and farmers in the middle of the spectrum continue to be squeezed the most.

The preliminary statistics for Minnesota largely track the national trends. Even still, farmers in Minnesota tend to be slightly younger and the farms slightly smaller. They also have higher earnings on average. The decrease in the number of Minnesota farms is happening at a higher rate than experienced nationally. The decrease in the number of farms in Minnesota is still concerning in its own right, but even more so knowing that many states (i.e. New England states and even South Dakota and Nebraska) are now gaining farms after decades of their own decline.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was encouraged by the results stating, “The preliminary data released today provide a snapshot of a strong rural America that has remained stable during difficult economic times.”

Putting aside encouraging farm income numbers, “stable” in this case seems to mean a slower decline than normal rather than stability in the true sense of the word.

How the local region compares to the national and state preliminary statistics released last month will become more evident later this spring when the full report is released.


Greg Schieber is an attorney at the law office of Richard A.
Nethercut, PA in Harmony, Minn., and periodically writes for The Caledonia Argus.