New Numbers for Agriculture: USDA Releases Latest Census

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Every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) releases an updated Census of Agriculture. This census provides a comprehensive look at U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them. The census provides a snapshot on land use and ownership, operator characteristics, production practices, income and expenditures. It’s also important to note that due to the large amount of data gathered and analyzed, the census reflects numbers from 2022, even though the data was not released until a few weeks ago.

I always look forward to the census, as it provides a profile of how North Carolina stacks up nationally. So, let’s dig into the numbers!

North Carolina moves up one spot nationally to #8 in the rankings for agricultural sales (nudging back Indiana and trailing Kansas). According to NC State Economist Mike Walden, North Carolina’s agricultural industry accounts for the largest sector in our state’s economy, weighing in at a whopping 103.2 billion dollars annually, accounting for 16% of NC’s gross domestic product (GDP), and employing one out of every six North Carolinians.

North Carolina continues to be a very diverse agricultural state, with its wide range of products and commodities, coming in as the third most diverse state in the nation (behind California and Florida). This is due in large part to North Carolina’s geographic length, elevation changes, mild climate, consistent rainfall, and varying soil types. Diversity in crops and commodities is further highlighted by the latest statistics indicating that North Carolina ranks first nationwide in tobacco, sweet potatoes, all poultry and eggs, comes in second in turkeys and trout, and rounds out third overall in hogs and cucumbers.

While the previous stats reflect positively on the current state of agriculture in North Carolina, there are also trends that are not so encouraging. Over the past twenty years, we have lost over 9,000 farms and over 800,000 acres of farmland. According to research conducted by the American Farmland Trust, a national nonprofit that advocates for the preservation of farmland nationwide, North Carolina ranks second in the nation in projected agricultural land lost by the year 2040. Based on current development rates, 1.1 million acres of agricultural land in the state will be converted in the next 20 years, and if development increases in suburban and rural areas, North Carolina could lose as much as 1.6 million acres during this same period.

The census also indicates that the average age of farmers continues to rise to over 58 years old, and that only 32% of current farmers qualify as “new and beginning producers,” with 10 years or less of experience in agriculture. The majority of younger farmers getting into the industry typically have smaller acreage and lower revenue operations, primarily due to challenges with securing loans and accessing land. Production agriculture can be a challenging career for someone to break into if they are not already part of an established farming operation or have ready access to land, equipment and capital.

As you can see by the recent census numbers above, we have some challenges ahead of us but also plenty of reason for optimism. In next month’s article, we’ll look more closely at current and projected trends in Lee County agriculture, and discuss some proactive strategies to preserve farmland and get more younger people into agriculture and agribusiness.

Bill Stone is the County Extension Director for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.

Written By

Bill Stone, N.C. Cooperative ExtensionBill StoneCounty Extension Director & 4-H Youth Development Call Bill Email Bill N.C. Cooperative Extension, Lee County Center
Posted on Feb 28, 2024
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