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September 2019

New Census of Agriculture reveals much about Iowa farms

Every five years the U.S. Department of Agriculture carries out an extensive survey of farms and farmers all across the nation. The information that is collected and published serves a wide variety of purposes. One of the more important ones is to provide a snapshot of what farms and farmers at the national, state and county level look like, and how they are changing over time.

Number of farms

The long-term trend in Iowa as well as in most other states has been for the number of farms to decrease over time. The 2017 Census showed 86,104 farms in Iowa, a decrease of 2,533 from 2012, or almost 3%. However, these farms did not just disappear. Many small or mid-size farms were consolidated into larger units. The area of land in farms dropped just 0.2% over the same five-year period, while the number of harvested acres decreased by 0.7%. In other words, the amount of land in Iowa being farmed was essentially unchanged. The average number of acres in each farm increased slightly, from 345 to 355.

Number of farmers

Sometimes there is confusion between the number of farms and the number of farmers. These are not the same. Most of the Census information is collected by farm, which is defined as any agricultural operation that sold or could have sold at least $1,000 in production in the past year. Many small, part-time operations that do not fit the traditional "family farm" image are included, as well as some very large livestock and crop producers. Tracts of land owned by multiple landowners that are all being rented by the same operator count as one farm.

The number of farms represents the number of business units, but the number of people involved may be more important. The Census of Agriculture uses the term "producer" for anyone who takes an active decision-making role on a farm. Thus, each farm has one or more producers. The Census collected data on up to five producers per farm. Many family farms count both spouses as producers. Family partnerships or corporations count as one farm, but usually include multiple producers, who often are related to each other.

In fact, in 2017 Iowa had a total of 143,447 farm producers, an average of 1.67 per farm. Moreover, 21% of farms shared net income among more than one household.

Prior to 2017, the Census of Agriculture identified farm “operators.” In the last Census, the term "producer" was used, a more inclusive concept. Thus, direct comparisons cannot be made between producers in 2017 and operators in 2012. In both years a "primary" producer or operator was identified for each farm. Some data relating to these primary producers or operators can be compared, however, and are shown in the table at the end of this article.

Farm employees

Besides farm producers, many people work on farms as hired employees. Should they be considered farmers? They perform farm work for a living, so perhaps they should be. The 2017 Census of Agriculture showed that there were 73,257 paid farm workers in Iowa. Adding the number of employees and producers together shows that 216,704 people were employed on farms in Iowa in 2017, or 2.5 persons per farm.

Many of the paid employees worked only part-time, but 25,910 of them worked at least 150 days out of the year on the farm. If we consider these "full-time" farm employees to also be farmers, and add them to the number of producers, we find that there were actually 171,342 "farmers" in Iowa by this definition, or an average of 2.0 per farm.

Off-farm employment

The average farm size of 355 acres would generally not be large enough to support an individual or family, unless intensive crop or livestock production were being carried out. Not surprisingly, many farm producers work off the farm, as well. Census data reveal that just 41% of Iowa producers worked exclusively on the farm in 2017, while 19% reported part-time non-farm employment and 40% worked 200 days or more off the farm, essentially a full-time job. If we add just the producers who did not work off the farm to the number of paid workers with at least 150 days of farm work, we can estimate the number of "full-time" farmers in Iowa to be 85,335. Not surprisingly, producers on larger farms were less likely to have off-farm employment.

Female farmers

The latest Census also provides some details about the 49,065 female farm producers in Iowa. They accounted for 34% of all the farm producers in the state. Of these female producers, 17,280 were identified as the primary producer on the farm, accounting for 20% of all the primary producers.

Other characteristics

The average age of all producers was 57.4 years, a slight increase from 2012. Only 9% of the producers were under the age of 34. Sixty-seven percent of producers lived on the farm they operated, and 49% considered farming to be their primary occupation.

The full 2017 Census of Agriculture can be accessed online. Data are available for all states, and for each county within a state.

table 1


William Edwards, retired economist. Questions?