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New Census of Agriculture reveals much about Iowa farms

pdf fileAgDM Newsletter
September 2014

Every five years the U.S. Department of Agriculture carries out an extensive survey of 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 2012 Census showed 88,637 farms in Iowa, a decrease of over 4,000 compared to 2007.  However, these farms did not just disappear. Many mid-size farms were consolidated into larger units or subdivided into smaller units. In fact, the number of farms under 50 acres and over 1,000 acres have increased. The area of land in farms dropped just 0.4 percent over the same five-year period, while the number of harvested acres actually increased by 3.0 percent.

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 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. Each farm has one or more operators. Family partnerships or corporations count as one farm, but usually include multiple operators who often are related to each other. In fact, in 2012 Iowa had 131,535 farm operators, an average of 1.5 operators per farm. The total number of farm operators de­creased by 4,533 from 2007, a drop of 3.3 per­cent, but the number of operators per farm did not change.

Farm employees

The number of farm operators can be used as a measure of the number of "farmers"  However, many people work on farms as hired employees rather than self-employed operators. Should they be considered farmers? They perform farm work for a living, so perhaps they should. The 2012 Census of Agriculture showed that there were 79,838 paid farm workers in Iowa, nearly one per farm. Adding the number of operators and employees together shows that 211,373 people were employed on farms in Iowa.

Many of the paid employees worked only part-time, but 25,620 of them worked at least 150 days out of the year on the farm. If we consider these "full-time" farm employees to be farmers, and add them to the number of operators, we find that there are actually 157,155 “farmers” in Iowa by this definition. This number is almost exactly the same as was reported in 2007. The increase in full-time farm employees in the past five year essentially offset the decrease in farm operators.

Of course, not all farm operators work full time on the farm, either. Census data reveal that 40 percent of Iowa operators worked only on the farm in 2012, while 21 percent reported part-time non-farm employment and 38 percent worked 200 days or more off the farm, essen­tially a full-time job. If we add just the operators 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 78,078. Not surprisingly, operators of larger farms were less likely to have off-farm employment.

Women operators

The latest Census also provides some details about the 32,907 female farm operators in Iowa. They account for 25 percent of all the farm oper­ators in the state, the same proportion as in 2007, though the actual number dropped by 856. Of these female operators 7,108 were identified as the primary operator of the farm, accounting for 8 percent of all the primary operators. Another 23,235 were identified as the “second” operator, in most cases the spouse of the primary operator.

Other characteristics

The average age of the principal operators was 57.1 years, an increase of one year from 2007. However, the average age of all operators was slightly lower that, at 55.6 years. Over 58 per­cent of the principal operators were over the age of 55, but only 46 percent of the non-principal operators were over 55. This indicates that many of the non-principal operators represent the next generation of farmers.

Farm tenure continues to change. Operations with all owned land accounted for 56 percent of Iowa farms, a slight decrease from 2007, while the proportion of part-owners increased slightly to 34 percent. Ten percent were full renters. Seven percent of the farms had a crop-share lease, while 40 percent paid some cash rent (some farms did both). Just over 8 percent leased part of their machinery, and 32 percent hired some outside labor. Interest expense was reported by 55 per­cent of farms, indicating that they borrowed at least some of the funds used in their businesses. Over 85 percent of the harvested acres were covered by some form of crop insurance.

The full 2012 Census of Agriculture report can be accessed at www.agcensus.usda.gov.

Selected data from 2012 and 2007 Census of Agriculture


William Edwards, retired economist. Questions?