There’s plenty of gloom to go around these days in Wisconsin agriculture, and while the newly released 2017 Census of Agriculture did reveal some troubling — albeit not very surprising — trends, it also offered a few reasons for optimism.
Released April 11, the ag census paints the picture of American agriculture, providing valuable insight into changes and trends in the industry nationwide, right down to the county level. The data is used by policymakers, farm organizations and others as they make decisions and craft legislation important to agriculture and rural residents.
A big thank-you goes out to those farmers who took the time to fill out the survey. More than 70 percent of Wisconsin farmers responded.
This most recent survey included data collected from farmers by the National Agricultural Statistics Service from the five-year period of 2012-17. It highlights more than 6 million points of information about farms and ranches and those who operate them.
The census data revealed both ups and downs in agriculture. Some of the same concerns that popped up in previous surveys emerged in this one, such as the climbing average age of the farmer, an overall decrease in the number of farms and continued consolidation of farmland. More than half of all U.S. farms reported negative cash farm income in 2017.
Following are some of the more positive notes related to Wisconsin agriculture:
• Wisconsin agriculture’s strength lies in its great diversity — in farm size, type and location. Although the state continues to be a powerhouse in the U.S. dairy cattle industry, it’s also a national leader in areas such as dairy goats, livestock and vegetable production. Farms range in size and can be found throughout the state.
• Wisconsin hung on to its ranking as a top state for organic production, with the number of organic farms growing by 30 percent during the five-year census period. We rank second only to California.
• An expansion in agricultural land was seen in some unexpected places, including Florence, Forest and Ashland counties in northern Wisconsin and Racine County in the south.
• Wisconsin emerged as a national leader in the number of young and beginning farmers. Nine percent of Wisconsin producers are 34 years of age or younger. More than a fifth of Wisconsin’s farmers are new or beginning farmers. These people are investing in our industry, and it’s critical that we, as a state, do everything within our power to help keep them on the land and make a go of it.
• Direct sales to consumers are on the rise, expanding by 46 percent. This indicates that more farmers in the state are capturing added value for their products by tapping into consumers’ burgeoning interest in where their food comes from and the methods used to grow it.
• The vast majority of farms in Wisconsin are still on the smaller side, compared to the national trend, at fewer than 500 acres. Most are owned by one or two producers. Our dairy herds also are smaller than the national average of 325 cows — at 142 cows.
Challenges abound in farm country, and there’s no shortage of work to be done. But the unique variety of farms in Wisconsin, along with the faith shown by young and beginning farmers who are investing here, should serve us well in the future, as we approach the 2022 Census of Agriculture and beyond.