This week, USDA released preliminary data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture that provides a snapshot of a rural America that remains stable in the face of difficult economic times. While the data do not paint a perfect picture, they do tell a story of the unlimited potential and growing opportunity in modern rural America.
Census data indicate that the loss of farmland has slowed significantly since 2007, which means that while a total of 72 million acres of farmland have been lost since the 1982 census, we have begun to stem the tide. New tools in the 2014 Farm Bill should help to further slow and perhaps even reverse this trend in some areas of the country.
The results reinforce what we have known for many years: the farm population is aging. While that is a concern, the data also show that the number of young farmers increased slightly and the number of minority farm and ranch principal operators increased dramatically, reflecting the changing face of America as a whole. We are hopeful that USDA policies that attract and retain the next generation of talent into rural America will help to continue this trend.
The number of small and very large farms held steady. This reflects, in part, USDA’s recent push to help farmers and ranchers diversify into new markets, including local and regional food systems, specialty crops and organic production, and expand market access for American farm products overseas. The 2014 Farm Bill will do even more to expand support for beginning farmers and new market opportunities for all producers.
At the same time, we cannot ignore that devastating weather events increasingly impacts producers’ bottom lines. The prolonged drought and lack of disaster assistance over the past several years have made it even tougher for livestock producers and mid-sized farms to survive and thrive, and the data reflects that reality.
We must do more to protect the middle—farms and ranches that are middle-sized and mid-income—and ensure that they can access resources and protections to help them thrive. Here too, the farm bill will provide much-needed relief and stability through guaranteed disaster assistance.
More than anything, the census illustrates the power of data. Data from the census helps to inform smart policymaking that makes life easier for farmers and ranchers. It helps to stand up programs and initiatives that benefit young and beginning farmers and ranchers just starting out; improve access to resources that help women, veteran and minority farmers and ranchers thrive; and help farmers and ranchers diversify into new markets, including local and regional food systems, specialty crops and organic production.
We are on the right track, but there is still more work to do. In order to survive, American agriculture must continue to embrace innovation and diversity in crop production, markets, people and land use across the agricultural sector.
Tom Vilsack is the United States Secretary of Agriculture.