2012 Ag Census Reveals Organic Farming Growth

The Ag Census is one of those things that come around every five years, somewhat like the cicadas.

But, unlike cicadas, the Ag Census generates a wealth of information on agriculture in the United States. Based on data reported by the nation’s farmers and ranchers, the Census presents over six million pieces of information on topics ranging from inventories of livestock, land use practices, racial and gender characteristics of farm operators, agricultural sales, and acreage of specific crops. Publication of the Census is an opportunity to get your geek on and immerse yourself in data practical and arcane.

Starting with the 2002 Census, USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) has collected data on organic production. The 2012 Census documented 16,525 certified or exempt farms, an increase of 14% since 2008,1 with 12,771 of these being certified organic. Still, certified organic farms represent only 0.6% of the 2.1 million farms in the United States.

The 2012 Ag Census reports $3.1 billion of total organic product sales, representing data from the 14,326 farms that reported organic sales data. The Organic Trade Association in May announced that organic food sales in 2013 reached $32.3 billion, showing the immense value added to farm gate organic products by the processing and manufacturing sector.

Of the $3 billion in 2012 organic farm-level sales, 97% was sold by farms with annual sales of $50,000 or more, while 68% was sold by farms with annual sales of $1 million or more. Most organic farms are less than 100 acres (55%), while only 14% are 500 acres or more. The rest fall somewhere in between. NASS unfortunately no longer collects total acreage figures for organic production, which limits the ability to track the growth of organic using this metric.

The sectors with the most amounts of sales are organic dairy cattle and milk production with 26% of all organic sales, organic vegetable and melon sales with 25%, and organic fruit and tree nut sales at 20%.

Organic farmers tend to differ than their conventional counterparts in gender and age. Eighteen percent of primary operators of organic farms are female, while women are primary operators of only 14% of the nation’s farms overall. The average age of organic farmers is 53.4 years, almost five years younger than the overall average farmer age of 58.3 years. Most organic farmers are very experienced, with 66% of them working 10 years or more on their present farm; however, the overall average is 77% of primary operators working 10 years or more on their present farm. Organic farmers average 18 years on their present farm.

As has long been the case, California is the leading organic producing state by far, with 22% of the nation’s certified organic farms and 43% of organic product sales. California also leads the rest of the nation in overall agricultural production, with a total of $42.6 billion in agricultural sales in 2012.

A special organics tabulation of the data is slated to be released in September 2014. Meanwhile, NASS statisticians are on hand to help the public dig deeper into the data by running custom cross-tabulations. An actual example of a cross-tab conducted by NASS is the number of organic farms in each county of Michigan. The data can be sliced and diced any way you can imagine will be useful.

For more information, read the 2012 Ag Census and learn about on working with a statistician to generate custom cross-tabs.

1Organic data were also gathered in the 2007 Census. Unfortunately, the definition of organic used for the 2007 Census makes a direct comparison of organic data reported in 2007 and 2012 meaningless. A special follow-up survey by NASS in 2008 provides a better basis for comparison. This 2008 Organic Production Survey documented that there were 14,450 certified organic or exempt farms in the United States.