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U.S. Farm Numbers Decline 4.3% as Work Force Gets Older

Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) -- The average age of farmers in America has increased while the number of farms declined, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported today.

The heads of U.S. farms on average were 58.3 years old in 2012, up from 57.1 years in 2007, according to the agency’s census of agriculture. Total farms fell 4.3 percent to 2.11 million and average size expanded 3.8 percent to 434 acres.

“Agriculture embracing diversity in all forms is extremely important” to combat the aging workforce and shrinking rural population, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today in a speech announcing initial census results.

U.S. farms are coping with the waning of a commodities boom that pushed agricultural profits to records in 2011 and 2013, according to economists. Net income this year may fall 27 percent to $95.8 billion, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said this month, while a 37 percent surge in farmland prices since 2009 may start to ease, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

The value of all farm products, including crops and livestock, rose 33 percent to $394.6 billion in the five-year period, according to census results.

Farms operating at the end of 2012 covered 914.6 million acres, down 0.8 percent from 2002. The number of farms with more than 1,000 acres increased 0.3 percent to 173,483 from 173,049, while all categories of smaller farms declined.

Under 35

As the heads of farms grow older, the number of producers under 35 rose 1.1 percent, a trend that Vilsack said may signal that a new generation will be available to take over operations.

The aging of farmers will present more opportunities to younger farmers as older producers retire, said John Hays, senior vice president for policy at Farm Credit Council, a trade group for the federally chartered Farm Credit System that that lends to farmers and rural businesses.

“To start farming and say, ‘I’m going to have 2,000 acres of corn ground,’ that’s beyond reach for many people with zero experience or much financial history,” he said in an interview before the report was released.

The census, which contacts every U.S. farm and ranch, is the most comprehensive source of agricultural data collected by the federal government. Produced every five years, the document is intended to show changes in the farm economy and illustrate the challenges farmers face. Full data, which will be released in upcoming months, was delayed by budget cuts and last year’s government shutdown, Vilsack said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Bjerga in Washington at abjerga@bloomberg.net

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