HARRISONBURG — Total crop sales were up in the Augusta, Rockingham, Page and Shenandoah counties compared to 2012, but that doesn’t mean all farmers are doing well, according to the Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, which was released Thursday.
Across the country, there are 2.04 million farms and ranches, which is a 3.2% decrease from 2012 levels. The average size of a farm or ranch operation has increased 1.6 percent since 2012 to 441 acres.
Overall, the nation faced a small percentage decline in overall numbers and land in farms since 2012. More specifically, the census found an increase in the largest and smallest operations with a decrease in medium-sized farms.
The 2017 statistics report that there were 2,026 farm operations in Rockingham during 2017, 6% increase from 1,902 operations in 2012.
Most of those new operations came in sizes below 180 acres to reach a total of 1,686, up from 1,538 in 2012.
However, the number of farms in Rockingham between 180 acres and 1,000 acres dropped slightly from 364 in 2012 to 340 in 2017. This was even including a 40% increase in farms in the 500 to 999 acre range.
Other counties saw similar fluctuations based on size of the farms. The number of farms 180 acres and above grew in Augusta, but dropped in Shenandoah.
The decrease in medium-sized farms may be coming from trouble in the dairy industry as well as farmers ending production due to their age, said Lareth May, president of the Rockingham County Farm Bureau.
The economy also plays a role, he said.
And many of these farmers are feeling the squeeze of the overall economy, said Doug Horn, the crop and soils extension agent for Rockingham, Augusta, Bath, Highland and Rockbridge counties.
“What’s happening is you’re seeing those people succumbing to the pressures of making a living,” he said.
Medium and small farms often fall between the lines of being too large for a simply supplemental income but too small to provide enough sole income, he said.
Horn also said the rising age of farmers has been a trend in the agriculture census.
“The average age is steadily going up about every census,” he said.
The average age of all producers rose to 57.5 in 2017, an increase of 1.2 years from 2012.
Large farms have an advantage to expanding, given their size, Horn said.
“The trend in agriculture is it’s always been a low-margin industry and so the economies of scale come into play real quick,” he said.
Economies of scale is a business idea stating the more of something a business makes, the cheaper it is to produce.
“These guys are looking at pennies in return where another type business looks in hundreds of dollars in return,” he said.
Despite this, many still farm on family lands, Horn said.
“I think there’s a real strong tie to the land and people are trying to preserve that way of life,” he said.
Nationally, farms between one and nine acres make up 0.1% of all farmland with all 273,000 combined, according to the census. This is in contrast to the much smaller number of farms with 2,000 or more acres — 85,127 farms — accounting for 58% of farmland.
The number of farms accounting for 75% of all sales dropped by 12.1% in 2017, from 119,908 in 2012 to 105,453 nationally.
The number of ranches and farms across the country using renewable energy systems more than doubled from 57,299 in 2012 to 133,176 in 2017.
The sales of all 28,958 national operations to retail outlets, institutions and foods hubs in 2017 were valued at $9 billion.
Total crop sales increased in Shenandoah County from $19,429,000 in 2012 to $20,174,000 in 2017. The totals sales also increased slightly in Page County from $6,254,000 in 2012 to $6,331,000 in 2017.
Rockingham County saw a larger increase than Page County, increasing total crop sales from $47,606,000 in 2012 to $54,341,000 in 2017. Augusta County total crop sales also jumped to $37,519,000 in 2017 from $27,685,000 in 2012.
The Census of Agriculture has been executed every five years since 1982, with the first census of its kind being conducted in 1840.
The survey is conducted by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service and gets information directly from farms and ranchers from across the country.