Census of Agriculture Highlights South Central Idaho’s Shifting Farm Picture

The number of farming operations and the acres of land under farm production in the U.S. peaked in 1935, trending downward since except for a slight uptick from 2012 to 2017. But in south central Idaho, the number of acres in farming is stable and even experienced some growth since the 2007 recession, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture, a survey conducted every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).

The Census of Ag is comprehensive across geographies, providing data on the nation, the 50 states and counties within each state. Data is gathered from surveys mailed to farmers and ranchers with thousands of acres and hobby farmers who only sell a couple of steers annually to friends and family.

The Census of Ag provides the only source of uniform, comprehensive, and impartial agriculture data for every county in the nation. This data is also a ‘go-to’ for those who serve farmers and rural communities including federal, state and local governments, agribusinesses, trade associations, and agricultural support companies.

The NASS definition of a farm is any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the census year. This threshold is unchanged since 1975.

Farm Consolidation

At its peak in 1935, there were 6.8 million farms in the United States. That has trended downward since, reaching a record low of 1.9 million farms in 1992. The current Census of Ag reports two million operations — a slight uptick from 2012. The acres involved in farming operations dropped 54 million acres, a decrease of 5.7 percent, over the past 20 years.

Idaho’s downward trend in the number of farms has been ongoing with a brief rise in 2007. The biggest drop was in 2012 when the state lost 4.3 percent of its operations. Idaho had almost 25,000 farms, while south central Idaho had a little more than 4,000 in 2017, about 16 percent of the state share. However, the number of acres still in farming in the south central region remains stable and has even grown since the 2007 recession.

Producer Characteristics

The average age of agriculture producers is relatively high compared with other industry sectors. In Idaho, the average age is 56.4 and varies among the mid-50s across all eight counties in south central Idaho. Twin Falls County is the youngest regionally at an average age of 53.9 – all considerably older than the average age of 48.6 for farmers completing the 1959 Census of Ag.

Nationally, the average age of agricultural producers is closer to 60 years old. Combine that with retiring baby boomers in the industry and it is not surprising there would be a decline in mid-sized operations and growth in both larger corporate family farms and hobby farms. While individuals retiring from other industries actually leave a job, farming tends to be a lifestyle that is sustainable into retirement on a reduced scale. Many retirees from the agricultural sector maintain a handful of steers or lambs to butcher for family and friends’ needs or keep a parcel of ground that yields a large garden for friends, family or farmers markets. Organic and natural meats, fruits and vegetables are gaining in popularity in both Idaho and the nation, frequently produced by small operations. This small-scale production activity puts a retiree easily over the $1,000-a-year definition the NASS census uses, but at a much lower level of acreage.

Nationally, there has been a steady stream of young people leaving family agricultural operations due to the time demands and rigorous physical duties. Other factors, such as the isolation of rural living and the challenges of annual financing requirements, logistics, marketing and workforce demands, can discourage many people from pursuing the career. These are disincentives for the younger population, who have experienced higher student debt, stagnant wages and higher housing expenses than their predecessors. Many young people also say they prefer living in metropolitan areas rather than rural.

A newcomer to the agriculture industry would most likely find it difficult to opt into being a farmer or rancher. Land ownership has taken generations to accumulate, and the cost of equipment is staggering with high-tech tractors equipped with GPS capabilities valued at $500,000 or more. The inputs such as cost of fuel, stock and/or seed and uncontrollable factors like weather, domestic and global markets and trade agreements create risks that are serious barriers to entry.

The succession of farmers is a complex hand-off because the next generation is frequently not interested in the risk and reward model of agriculture. After the annual high finance outlay, farmers’ fortunes correlate with market prices and yields, both of which are vulnerable to weather, disease, pests or competition from domestic and global markets. The industry is risky, and the worst-case scenario is a repeat of the mid-1980s farm crisis resulting in loss of farms and livelihoods. So far, data continues to show the debt-to-asset ratio for agricultural producers in the U.S. is at low levels likely due to the low interest rates and increasing real estate values for those who own the land, rather than lease.

Farm Size

Hobby farms or small farms, defined as those operating on less than 10 acres, nationally have grown by 33 percent over the past 20 years and 22 percent compared with the 2012 Census of Ag data. The growth has been much higher in Idaho, which reports 55 percent growth of hobby farms over the two decades and a 37 percent uptick since 2012.

The eight-county area of south central Idaho, which includes Blaine, Camas, Cassia, Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka and Twin Falls counties, grew its small farm operations, but not to the degree of the nation or the state. Regional hobby farm operations grew 17.6 percent from 2012, an increase of 148 operations to 987 total. Blaine and Camas counties had the greatest percentage growth mainly due to the smaller number of operations in these two counties. With smaller numbers, any shift or change results in greater magnitude when converted to percentage change. The two highest numerical changes occurred in Jerome County, which was up by 32 farms or 30 percent, and Twin Falls County, which was up by 65 farms or 24 percent. These two counties have the greater population share of the region comprising the Twin Falls Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Corporate Family Farms

Corporate family farms are also growing nationally, albeit at a slower pace than hobby farms — up 14 percent over the past 20 years — and almost four percent since 2012. Acquisitions or combining of operations makes sense from a standpoint of efficiency and expertise. The sophistication required for global sales and marketing requires family members educated in business specialties. The growth of corporate family farms in Idaho outpaced the nation most recently, but not over the longer period of two decades — 1.4 percent over the past two decades and 5.2 percent since 2012. South central Idaho’s culture and economy remains tied to the land economically and, while it slides some with each passing generation, the share of young producers is greater in south central Idaho and the state of Idaho than the nation.

Market Receipts

The 2017 Census of Agriculture also breaks out the data by state and county to provide information for producers, financiers, supply chain business and services along with government agencies.

The region continues to boast four of the top five agriculture-producing counties based on market receipts in Idaho. The 2017 Census reported $3.64 billion in market receipts from the eight county area — accounting for 48 percent of the $7.5 billion worth of commodities produced in Idaho in 2017. The most recent estimate of agricultural revenue for 2019 is a hefty $8.3 billion, according to the University of Idaho’s agricultural economist, Garth Taylor, Ph.D.

Idaho contributes only two percent share of the total market receipts nationally, but when viewed by product, it is a leader in several crop and livestock categories. Idaho ranks nationally:

  • No. 1 in potatoes, barley and trout.
  • No. 2 in peppermint, sugar beets, alfalfa hay and hops.
  • No. 3 in milk production and cheese.
  • No. 4 in onions, spring wheat and lentils.
  • No. 5 in dried edible beans and more.

Much of Idaho’s agricultural commodities and value-added goods are exported to many countries and there are more deals in the making with each trade mission.

Relationships with foreign direct investment food processing manufacturers yield strong careers and wages for working Idahoans. Headquartered in Europe and Canada, these companies strategically make value-added product at processing plants sprinkled across southern Idaho. Nationally, FDI’s accounted for 23 percent of the total U.S. goods exported in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. These same majority-owned U.S. affiliates of foreign entities are “catalysts for research and development, spending $56.7 billion in 2015 on R&D and accounting for 15.8 percent of the US total expenditure on R&D by businesses.”[1]

Cost of Equipment

The cost of machinery has risen dramatically since the last 1997 Census of Ag. The causation behind this increase can be traced to automation and technology impacting agriculture, but also low interest rates have made it conducive for borrowing and paying back the principal.

Agriculture in synergy with food manufacturing continues to be a strong component of south central Idaho’s economy. The world is the recipient of Idaho’s strong production tied to generational investment and smart science.

Since its first publication in 1840, the Census of Agriculture has tested varying publication release schedules and has expanded questions to include characteristics of farm owners, income, inputs, the type of crops grown, the amount of crop planted, harvested and its yields. It even includes questions to determine the percentage of farms with internet access or that sell directly to the consumer, such as the farmer’s market concept or co-operatives.

As the Census of Ag is the only source for this volume of agriculture data for every county in the nation, it is imperative that producers respond to the survey in order to understand aggregate trends, as well as differences among states and counties. This will insure this data remains a ‘go-to’ in service to farmers and rural communities.

Find out more about the Census of Agriculture at: https://www.nass.usda.gov/AgCensus/

Jan.Roeser@labor.idaho.gov, regional economist
Idaho Department of Labor
(208) 735-2500 ext 3639


[1] The latest available data on compensation, employment, goods exports, and R&D activities by U.S. affiliates of foreign entities is from 2015. Activities of U.S. Affiliates of Foreign Multinational Enterprises, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Accessed July 6, 2017. www.bea.gov/international/di1fdiop.htm “Business R&D Performance in the United States Increases Over 5.6% to $341 Billion in 2014,” Infobrief. National Science Foundation (NSF). August 25, 2016. https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2016/nsf16315/