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March 2024

New Census of Agriculture reveals more farms, more farmers in Iowa

Every five years the United States Department of Agriculture carries out an extensive survey of farms and farmers 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.

  • The number of farm units increased by 0.9%.
  • The number of farmer producers increased by 7.1%.
  • The average farm size decreased from 355 acres to 345 acres.
  • The number of small and medium acreage farms increased while the number of large acreage farms decreased.
  • The total acres of farmland decreased by 1.9%.
  • Crop sales accounted for 51% of total gross farm income, Livestock sales accounted for 44% and direct government payments accounted for 2%.

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. However, the 2022 Census of Agriculture showed 86,911 farms in Iowa, an increase of 807 from 2017, or almost 1%. This is the first increase in Iowa farm numbers since the 2007 Census.

Keep in mind that the Census of Agriculture defines any agricultural operation that sold or could have sold at least $1,000 in production in the past year as a "farm." 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.

Most of the increase in farm numbers came from smaller farms, as shown in Table 1. Farms under 100 acres accounted for 44% of farms in Iowa, while units from 100 to 999 acres accounted for 48%. Large farms of 1,000 acres or more accounted for only 8 % of the total. Small and medium-size farms both showed a slight increase in numbers from 2017, while the number of large farms decreased by 13%, a reversal of trends in recent history.

Tables 1 and 2. Number of farms by total acres, and land use, total acres.

Land in farms

The total area of land in farms in Iowa dropped by 585,712 acres over the same five-year period, or nearly 2%. The number of acres in harvested crops decreased even more, by 827,168 acres, and pasture decreased by 99,680 acres. However, the acres in idled acres (Conservation Reserve and other programs), woodlands and farmsteads all increased. The average number of acres in each farm unit decreased slightly, from 355 to 345.

Smaller farms were less likely to have harvested land. Less than half of the land operated by farms under 100 acres was harvested, indicating that many of them concentrated on livestock production. On the other hand, over 80% of the land farmed in units of 500 acres or more was harvested.

Details about changes in land use are shown in Table 2. The Census does not collect data about what types of nonfarm uses farmland may have been converted to.

Figure 1. Sources of farm income.

Sources of farm income

Iowa’s agriculture has always been diversified between crop and livestock production. As shown in Figure 1, sales of crops accounted for 51% of Iowa’s gross farm income in 2022. Livestock sales produced 44%, while other farm activities such as rental income and custom hiring produced 3%. Direct federal and state government payments accounted for only 2% of gross income.

Table 3.Farm producers characteristics.

Sometimes there is confusion between the number of farms and the number of farmers. These are not the same. The number of farms represents the number of business units operated, but the number of people involved is greater. The Census of Agriculture uses the term "producer" for anyone who takes an active decision-making role on a farm. Many family farms count both spouses as producers. Family partnerships or corporations count as one farm, but often include multiple producers, who may be related to each other. Twenty-four percent of Iowa farms shared net income among more than one household.

In 2022, the Census of Agriculture identified a total of 153,680 farm producers in Iowa, an average of 1.8 per farm. This was an increase of 10,233 from 2017, or 7.1%. Females accounted for 33% of all the farm producers in the state.

What type of farmers are responsible for the increase in farm producers since 2017? The data in Table 3 show that 79% of the added number of producers said that farming was not their principal occupation. Moreover, 83% of the added number said they also worked off the farm, and over 50% worked at least 200 days off the farm. The increase in the number of producers living away from the farm that they operated actually exceeded the increase in total producers. Finally, the age profile of Iowa producers changed, with the numbers under 45 and over 65 increasing, while the number between 45 and 64 years of age decreased.

Thus, two different profiles may emerge to explain the increase in farm producers. One is younger farmers who have a nonfarm occupation but are involved in a farming operation in a management role, even though they may not live on the farm. The second is older farmers who may have partially retired and moved off the farm but are still involved in management. They may have acquired a part-time, off-farm job to supplement retirement income. Either group may manage a smaller than average operation.

Table 4 and 5. Selected characteristics, farm producers, employees.

Farm employees

Besides farm producers, many people work on farms as hired employees. They perform farm work for a living, so can be considered "farmers" as well. The 2022 Census of Agriculture showed that there were 71,748 paid farm workers in Iowa. Adding the number of employees and producers together shows that 225,428 people were employed on farms in Iowa in 2022, or 2.64 persons per farm.

Off-farm employment

The average farm size of 345 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 40% of Iowa producers worked exclusively on the farm in 2022, while 19% reported part-time, non-farm employment and 41% worked 200 days or more off the farm, essentially a full-time job. Not surprisingly, producers on larger farms were less likely to have off-farm employment.

Other characteristics

Table 4 shows that the average age of all producers was 57.6 years, a slight increase from 2017. Sixty-one percent of producers lived on the farm they operated, and 44% considered farming to be their primary occupation. The average producer had been on the same farm for 24 years.

The full Census report can be accessed online, 2022 Census of Agriculture. Data are available for all states, and for each county within a state.


William Edwards, retired economist. Questions?