This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) released the results of the organization’s 2017 Census of Agriculture. Described by NASS as “a complete count of U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them,” the massive undertaking has occurred roughly every five years since 1840.
The survey examines land use, farm and ranch ownership and operator characteristics, agricultural production practices, as well as expenditure and revenue. Based on the data collected, in 2017 there were more than 2 million farms and ranches in the U.S. on more than 900 million acres of land. Encouraging takeaways from the 2017 data include reported increases in organic and local food sales by producers. Concerning elements emerged such as the continued rise of consolidation in the industry.
One trending data element highlighted by the survey is the role of women in American agriculture. The results show increased participation of women on U.S. farms and ranches with females accounting for 36% of all producers on these operations. Additionally, 56% of the farms and ranches that responded said that they have at least one female decision maker guiding their business.
“Female producers are the most heavily engaged in the day-to-day decision making along with recordkeeping and financial management,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue at a launch event. “From the tractor to the grain cart to keeping the books and paying the bills, we know what females contribute to American agriculture.”
An uptick in female participation in the profession is welcome progress that should be applauded. However, in accounting for the increase, critical changes in the way survey data was collected must be acknowledged.
The 2017 census included new design elements in the demographics section of the questionnaire that focused on decision making on farms and ranches. In previous years, the collection only allowed respondents to enter principle operator data for one individual on a farm or ranch. This approach, however, did not capture the many instances where multiple people participated equally in decision making for an operation.
“While the number of male producers declined 1.7 percent, the number of female producers increased nearly 27 percent, underscoring the effectiveness of the attempt to better represent all people involved in farm decision making,” NASS wrote about the refined survey design.
Ginger Harris, a Statistician and Demographer at NASS, called the accommodation to account for multiple principle producers on a farm or ranch, “the major change we’re going to see this census.”
The 2017 data shows the overall number of farms and ranches in the U.S. down by more than 3% compared to 2012’s inventory. Meanwhile, the number of producers nationwide was up by almost 7%, which Harris attributes to farms reporting multiple producers. She says that this rise “underscores the effectiveness of the changes made [to the survey’s design].”
The important role women play in helping to guide a family farm, which 96% of respondents called their operation, is officially recognized in the most recent Census of Agriculture. Many of the women accounted for in the 2017 data have toiled tirelessly alongside husbands, partners or other family members for years without formal acknowledgement in the census. In 2017, thanks to NASS’ revised survey design, these women and their important contributions have finally been counted.