Ups and Downs

The 2017 ag census shows more women producers, fewer middle-sized farms in America.

Image by USDA NASS

There were fewer middle-sized farms in 2017 than five years earlier, and the age of the average farm operator continues to tick upward, according to results of the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

USDA states the 2017 Census of Agriculture includes 6.4 million new points of information about farms and ranches, and the people who run them, breaking down more information to the county level. The data is used by policymakers to help determine local funding for a variety of programs, and the census data is often used to highlight specific information about farms and ranches.


USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service says the data shows both farm numbers and land in farms have had small declines since the last census in 2012. There are more large farms and more small farms, but fewer “middle-sized farms,” according to the data. The average age of all farmers and ranchers also continues to rise.

According to the data, there were 85,127 farms with 2,000 or more acres in 2017, and those operators made up 58% of all farmland. At the same time, the 273,000 smallest farmers, each with under 10 acres of ground, made up just 0.1% of all farm ground.

There are 2.04 million farms and ranches, down 3.2% from 2012, with an average size of 441 acres, which is up 1.6% from 2017. Combined, farms and ranches operate on 900 million acres of ground, which is down 1.6% from 2012.

Fewer farmers make up the bulk of U.S. farm sales, USDA noted. Just 105,453 farms produced 75% of all sales in 2017, down from 119,908 in 2012.

Of the 2.04 million farms and ranches, the 76,865 making $1 million or more in 2017 represent just over two-thirds of the $389 billion in total value of production, while the 1.56 million operations making under $50,000 represent just 2.9%.

According to USDA, the average age of all farmers and ranchers is 57.5 years, up 1.2 years from the 2012 average. The Ag Census showed 96% of farms and ranches are family owned.

Farm expenses topped $326 billion in 2017 with feed, livestock purchased, hired labor, fertilizer and cash rents topping the list of farm expenses.

While average farm income was $43,053 in 2017, a total of 56.4% of farmers had negative net cash farm income that year. USDA highlighted 43.6% of farmers had positive net cash income.


USDA changed some demographic questions for the 2017 census to better draw in all of the people involved in the decision-making on farms. By doing so, the number of farmers and ranchers rose nearly 7% to 3.4 million people, with most of the growth because of multiple producers added per farm. Most of the new producers added were female, as well.

The number of male farmers and ranchers fell 1.7% to 2.17 million from 2012 to 2017, while the number of female farmers and ranchers rose by nearly 27% to 1.23 million. USDA states, “This change underscores the effectiveness of the questionnaire changes.”

The changes show 36% of all farmers and ranchers are female, and 56% of all farms have at least one female decision-maker. Farms with female producers making decisions tend to be smaller than average in both acres and value of production. Female farmers and ranchers are most heavily engaged in the day-to-day decisions along with recordkeeping and financial management.

There are 321,261 young producers age 35 or younger on 240,141 farms. Farms with young producers making decisions tend to be larger than average in both acres and sales.


> 2017 Census of Agriculture

> USDA NASS Quick Stats data query tool


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