by Sharon Licht, CalCAN Policy Intern
On May 2, the USDA released its most recent Census of Agriculture data. Every five years, the Census quantifies trends in U.S. farmer demographics, production methods, yields, and sales.
Conducted in 2012, the Census describes the practices of 3.2 million farmers managing 2.1 million farms on over 914 million acres of farmland across the country. Dominating the nation’s total agricultural production and leading the country with 9 of the 10 top counties for value of sales, California agriculture comprised a major portion of national data. This post explores some of the national and statewide trends in the data, and what they can tell us about where the industry is headed.
The average California farmer is 57.9 years old, compared to the steadily-increasing national average of 58.3 years. But while California’s farmers tend to be slightly younger than the national average, Census data suggests that beginning farmers have had trouble getting a foothold in the state compared to their national peers.
Nationally, the number of beginning farmers — those working their current operation for under 10 years — has decreased 20 percent since 2007. In California, the number of beginning farmers has dropped 29 percent since 2007.
The steadily increasing average age of farmers reflects the economic burden endured disproportionately by young farmers. Lingering impacts of the recession and multi-year drought, along with astronomically-high land prices across the state, may be some factors discouraging Californians from entering into farming.
The Census data reaffirms the long-term national trend of consolidation in the agriculture industry, with California following a similar trajectory of fewer farms and increased average farm size. But while total acres in farmland decreased slightly at the national scale, California acreage actually increased slightly from 25.36 million acres in 2007 to 25.57 million acres in 2012. Some of this expansion may be because of greater conversion of foothill land not previously in agricultural production, but more research is needed. Soon, the Department of Conservation will release its update on farmland conversion in the state.
The Census data also reflects decreased investments in key federal lands conservation programs between 2007 and 2012. Total California acreage enrolled in four major conservation programs (Conservation Reserve, Wetlands Reserve, Farmable Wetlands, and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Programs) has decreased by 58.5 percent since 2007.
On-Farm Conservation & Organic Agriculture
In recent years, the Census of Agriculture has gathered data on various on-farm conservation practices, including energy production and use, agrochemical usage, organic practices, rotational grazing, cover cropping, and more.
One notable trend in California farming is the change in agrochemical usage: the total number of farms using fertilizer, manure, or chemicals decreased 16.3 percent between 2007 and 2012.
Sustainable agricultural trends are also evident in the organic sector, where organic sales surged by 82 percent nationally since 2007, despite the recession. Census data points to lower concentration of production on organic farms than on farms overall, as 10 percent of organic farms account for 75 percent of total national organic sales, while just 6 percent of all farms account for 75 percent of total sales. California leads the nation with 3,008 farms now selling organic products and total annual organic product sales of over $1.35 billion, a 106% increase in sales since 2007.
On their blog, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) highlights the role of the local market, citing a 60 percent national increase in direct-to-consumer sales over the past decade. Additionally, NSAC notes the 2012 Census gathered entirely new categories of data related to local food marketing, such as direct-to-retail and community supported agriculture (CSAs). California leads the nation in both of these categories.
[More data on on-farm conservation practices can be found here.]
Trends in farmer demographics and land use are paramount to understanding the future of California agriculture. The increasing average age of California farmers may lead to a generational gap in agricultural knowledge, if the number of younger farmers does not substantially increase. Additionally, if trends in the number and size of farms persist, the California landscape will soon be subject to the demands of very few and very large, consolidated farms. Census data also points to the relative resilience and profitability of organic agriculture, as well as the overall decreased use of agrochemicals. Demographic and land use trends highlight the necessity for statewide conservation and mitigation of agricultural land conversion, and also suggest that sustainable organic systems might prove more resilience in the face of fiscal and climatic challenges.