USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture: Takeaways for California

Posted on Tuesday, June 4th, 2019 by Molly Taylor
Rows of processing tomato plants in Woodland, CA. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

USDA’s 2017 farm census was released last month, revealing familiar trends of farm consolidation and loss of agricultural land. California remains a leader in agricultural production, generating 45 billion dollars worth of food, fiber, and fuel on 70,000 farms covering 24.5 million acres in the state. We took a close look at the 2017 census to get a better sense of what has changed in our agricultural landscape since 2012, choosing to highlight areas that have seen particularly substantial changes in the last five years.

Farm scale

The number of small farms declined in the state from 2012 after a period of increase in the 2000s. Mid-scale operations remained largely flat with 6,364 operations in the 180 to 499 acreage range. We saw a slight decline in the number of operations ranging from 500 to 999 acres, down from 3,230 to 3,072. Large operations of 1,000 acres or more remained relatively steady at 4,455 in 2017, compared to 4,474 in 2012.

Crop Shifts

As a state, California produces two-thirds of the nations fruits and nuts, and is continuing the trend of planting nut trees. Since the last census in 2012, there are 330,000 more acres of almonds and 87,000 more acres of walnuts in the state. However, other fruits associated with California’s Mediterranean weather, like tomatoes, oranges, avocados, and peaches, have all decreased significantly in acreage. Nearly 42,000 fewer acres of tomatoes, 23,000 fewer acres of oranges, 7,000 fewer acres of peaches, and 2,600 fewer acres of avocados were grown in the state since 2012.

Vegetable crops, like artichokes, asparagus, lima beans and snap peas saw a drop in the number of acres planted, but an uptick in farms planting the crop, suggesting that more farms are diversifying their crop selections and growing on a smaller scale. All types of lettuce crops saw extensive growth in acres planted, up 17,000 acres totaling approximately 250,000 acres of lettuce statewide. Spinach also saw a similar increase in acres planted, up from 2012 by nearly 21,000 acres.

Grain crops saw a significant drop in production, with 86,000 fewer acres of corn, 264,000 fewer acres of wheat, and 125,000 acres less of rice planted in the state in 2017.

Farm Management & Climate Change

What can the Ag Census tell us about farm management practices that have climate benefits? Turns out, the census can tell us about a few key climate-related strategies – from farmland protection to a select number of farm management practices.

Farmland Conservation

Conservation easements to permanently protect farmland from development and keep it in agriculture continue to be an important tool for farmland conservation in the state. The number of very small farms (1-9 acres) that are under easement went down since 2012, with 41 fewer very small farms under easement. Farms bigger than 10 acres under easement largely continue to increase, with 1,302 total farms greater than 10 acres with easements.

Renewable Energy

California generates 11% of the country’s on-farm renewable energy and is increasing its capacity with 8,700 more farms investing in renewable energy systems since 2012. Marginal farmland, salt affected-land, or land with otherwise contaminated soils provide opportunities for farmers to generate the power they need to operate irrigation pumps, electric fencing, and machinery without converting prime cropland. Since 2012, more than 8,000 farms installed solar systems, totaling nearly 14,000 statewide. Wind-powered farms also continue to grow, with more than 400 operations using wind throughout the state. We also saw an increase in methane digesters, up from 41 in 2012 to 57 in 2017.

Soil Health Practices

Farms implementing soil building practices that increase fertility and water holding capacity, like reduced or no-till and cover cropping, are increasing statewide. In 2017, nearly 240,000 acres of cropland were under no-till management, with an average of 61 acres under no-till management per farm that reported using the practice. No-till practices are favored by very small farms, with over 2,400 very small farms implementing the practice. Few very large farms (2,000 acres or more) are using the practice, with only 13 operations implementing no-till in 2017. However, the impact of these 13 farms is considerable, reporting a collective 53,000 acres compared to the nearly 7,000 acres combined of very small farms. Intensive tillage is on the decline, with 700,000 fewer acres intensively tilled in 2017. USDA certified organic farms increased in number since 2012, totaling 3,409 in the state.

Cropland planted with cover crop (excluding acreage under the Conservation Reserve Program) increased by a noticeable 10,000 acres since 2012. The practice is most commonly implemented on very small farms, but very large farms are making a big impact. The 13 very large farms planted a cover crop on 45,000 acres in 2017. However, the practice is becoming less popular for very large farms, down from the 77 farms that planted 77,000 acres in 2012.

What’s Next?

The Ag census continues to be a valuable source of information, indicating trends that shape our agricultural landscapes and the people who manage them. Moving forward, it will be important to monitor the cumulative impacts of management choices and continue to explore the connections between demographics and land use as we advocate for state funds to be allocated in support of climate-smart and resilient agriculture.

With California pushing for one million acres under healthy soils management by 2030, it’s clear that a lot more investment in outreach, education, technical assistance, financial incentives, and demonstration projects will be critical in the coming years.

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