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Ag stats tell a story

—By Andy Dietrick
Public Relations Team

The release of the Census of Agriculture always creates a media buzz, and the recent release of USDA’s preliminary data was no exception.

The phone started ringing even before I finished reading the statement from USDA announcing the new report.

I’m not sure why it is, but reporters always start with the number of farms (down) and the age of farmers (up). Those two data points become their story – unless we help them see the reality provided by the other statistics.

While the total number of farms may be down, the number of acres planted remains statistically unchanged. The loss of acreage over five years can be attributed to sprawl and development. But a good number of acres were set aside for environmental enhancements, wildlife habitat and timberland. This number provides us an opportunity to remind media of ag’s tradition of stewardship.

Really small farms of 1 to 9 acres took a hit – down nearly 3,100. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that local food systems are going away. The other small farm categories grew by 1,500, which could mean that hobbyists are exiting the marketplace and growers who are serious about selling directly to consumers are getting bigger and better. It’s all how you read the numbers. And while total land in farms is down slightly, the value of what came from that land is up significantly – nearly $3 billion more in 2012 than 2007. Good markets and higher prices account for most of that jump, but some can be attributed to higher yields and growing more using less. That’s another good story the media sometimes misses.

What story will the ag statistics from your county tell? These are national and state numbers, and we’ll have to wait until May or June to get county level data. But when it comes out I encourage you to go to the NASS site, download your county agricultural profile and give the 2012 snapshot a thorough review. Compare it to the data from the last census, and the one before that.

The dips and spikes and trends in the numbers are more than just data points on a page. They are the chapters in the book of your local agriculture, and a good understanding of what they mean will allow you to read that book to others with clarity and authority.

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