A couple of weeks ago, the USDA released preliminary ag census data for the states. Since 1840, the U.S. government has been conducting censuses of agriculture. For the purposes of the ag census, a farm is any agricultural operation that “had $1,000 in sales in the census year or had the potential to have $1,000 in sales in the census year.”
Though not perfect, the census is a good indicator of trends. What does the census tell us about the condition of Maryland agriculture?
Some good news.
From an economic standpoint, the value of agricultural products sold increased 24 percent to $2.27 billion, with an average per farm increase of 30 percent to $185,329. Of course, this is a good sign, but all farmers know that on a specific year weather and market conditions can influence these numbers more than the overall well-being of the agriculture industry.
A better sign of ag’s vitality and staying power is acreage of farmland and the latest figures confirm that the rate of farmland loss is slowing in Maryland. Between 1959 and 2002, Maryland lost roughly 1 million acres (1/3rd) of its farmland. Between 2007 and 2012, farmland acreage dropped 21,011 to 2,030,745 acres, a 2.2% decrease in farmland in 10 years. As a comparison, Maryland lost 6.6% of its farmland between 1992 and 2002 and 13.1% of its farmland between 1982 and 1992. Of course, credit should also be given to county and state land preservation programs that have protected nearly 800,000 acres of farmland in Maryland since the 1980s. Southern MD Agricultural Development Commission has been a partner in land preservation, helping the five Southern Maryland counties to preserve 14,766 acres.
Not good news
What about young farmers in Maryland? Preliminary results from the 2012 ag census reveal that only about 5% of all principal farm operators are 34 years old and younger, while 35% are age 65 or older. Nationwide, those numbers are similar, 5.6% and 33.2% respectively. In Maryland, the average age of farmers increased 1.7 years to 59, while in the nation, it increased 1.2 years to 58.3.
In 1959, farm operators under 34 represented 11% of the Maryland farmers, compared to 5% today. Most states have experienced similar declines in young farmers, but there are exceptions. For example, New York saw a 14.4% increase in farm operators under 34 and Maine saw a whopping 39% increase since 2007. New York is home base to the National Young Farmers Coalition and a recent article entitled USDA farming census: Maine has more young farmers, more land in farms which credits Maine’s rise young farmers to lower farmland costs, a good market for their produce and the new farmer programs provided by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
The full 2012 ag census report is expected in May. We look forward to seeing what trends have emerged in agricultural production and which parts of the state seem to be making the most progress.
Meanwhile, be sure to encourage young people to get into farming. According to the USDA, half of all current farmers in the U.S. are likely to retire in the next decade. As stated on the USDA New Farmer website, “Enlisting and supporting new farmers is essential to the future of family farms, the farm economy and healthy rural communities.” There will be shoes to fill!