Agriculture census finds contrasts in Virginia’s largest industry

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The recently released results of the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture are full of contrasts.

For example, the census found Virginia farmers are getting older, but more than a quarter of them are new or beginning farmers. Net farm income is up, yet the number of farms is down.

The number of Virginia farms totaled 43,225—6.1% fewer than the 46,030 operations identified in 2012. The total number of farmed acres was 7.8 million, also 6.1 percent less than the 8.3 million acres farmed in 2012. But the market value of agriculture products sold in 2017 was $3.96 billion, up 6 percent from $3.75 billion five years earlier.

The census was conducted almost two years ago, when many economic factors were significantly different, noted Dr. Jewel Bronaugh, Virginia commissioner of agriculture and consumer services. “In this census, there was actually a reduction in some of the input costs. So the costs for fuel and feed and fertilizer dropped slightly, which may account for why there may have been more income.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts the census every five years. The 2017 census collected more detailed demographic information about the nation’s farmers than in previous years.

It reported that there are 25,509 female farmers in Virginia, an increase of 18 percent from 2012. The number of male farmers declined 4.8 percent to 45,085 over the same period. Some of these men and women are couples who farm together.

The average age of a Virginia farmer increased slightly to 58.5 years from 58.3 in 2012. The number of Virginia farmers with military experience was 9,217, or 13 percent of all producers.

Farmers younger than 35 totaled 5,996, 8.5 percent of all Virginia farmers and the same as in 2012.

Kyle Sturgis, chairman of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers Committee, said beginning young farmers are going against tough odds.

“We know the farming economy is difficult right now, but all of us have this passion for farming, Sturgis said. “If you have that fire in you, then there’s nothing you can’t accomplish if you set your mind to it. That’s the mindset of young people going into farming today.”

The 2017 census reported that the number of new and beginning farmers, those with less than 10 years in business, totaled 18,957. That’s 27 percent of all Virginia farmers, about the same level as in 2012.

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