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Acreage is down, but number of farms is up

In Jackson County, land in agricultural production declined by 20% between 2012 and 2017 — to 170,298 acres — or 9.5% of Jackson County’s land. In 1964, 36% of Jackson County was in agricultural production. During the same period, 2% percent of Oregon’s farm land — 340,000 acres — was converted to other uses.

Those figures come from the most recent United States agricultural census, which has been an important economic tool since 1820 and is now conducted every five years under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The census provides metrics on agriculture that are widely used for planning and resource allocation. The 2017 Census of Agriculture was released April 11, 2019.

Oregon’s top agricultural products were cattle, nursery/greenhouse products and hay, according to the 2017 census.

For Jackson County, tree nuts and fruits (largely pears) represented $38.5 million in sales, up from $26 million in 2012, cattle represented $9.9 million in sales, down from $19.9 million in 2012, and vegetables represented $5.3 million in sales compared to $1.7 million in 2012.

“The beef market was the highest in some time in 2012 and 2013, with the average steer worth $1,750, so anyone on the fence about selling cattle sold,” said Marty Daniels, president of the Jackson County Stockmen’s Association. “Today a steer has a market value of $1,000, so ranchers are waiting at least through the summer for higher prices.”

Despite the overall decline in agricultural land use in Jackson County, the number of farms increased 24% over 2012, mainly because of small farms. The median farm size decreased from 17 acres in 2012 to 12 acres in 2017. Vegetable sales increased 21.2% in the 2017 data to $5.3 million compared to 2012, one indication that small farms are increasingly significant to the local economy and food supply.

Stuart O’Neill, executive director of Rogue Farm Corps, said he was pleased at a new demographic breakdown in the 2017 census that reports on new and beginning agricultural operators. O’Neill said the statistic signals a national recognition of the complexity of agricultural succession to the next generation, the difficulties that new farmers face in getting started, and how these factors relate to land use.

“There are more small farms starting, but we’re also doing a better job at getting the small farms to report to the census; it’s really important that the USDA has a full picture of farming across the country,” O’Neill said.

“Historically the very small farms have been underrepresented in USDA statistics, but small farms are critical to our local food system.”

O’Neill said better representation in the agricultural census means an agricultural sector will be prioritized in planning and gain more resources at the federal, state and local levels.

Oregon ranked fourth nationally in the number of female farm producers, according to the 2017 census, and Jackson County saw a 36% increase in the number of female farm producers compared to 2012.

A change in how principle farm operators are designated reveals another shift, from 438 farms with principle female operators in 2012 to 1,688 in 2017. Earlier agricultural census data permitted only one individual to be designated as a principle operator, whereas the census now allows for up to four principle operators, recognizing that today’s farms may have variable and less traditional organizational structures.

Because of the importance of pollinators to the future of agriculture and national concerns about bee colony collapse, USDA census staff made special efforts to track honey producers and document farms with bee colonies. Twenty-three farms producing an average of 1,081 pounds of honey were identified in the 2012 census, and 65 farms producing an average 2,490 pounds of honey were counted in the 2017 census.

While most Oregon counties showed a decrease in the number of organic farms, Jackson County showed an increase in 2017, and ranked third in the number of organic farms, the count increasing from 36 in 2012 to 41.

The number of organic farms in Klamath County increased from 32 in 2012 to 70 in 2017, and Lane County went from 60 organic farms in 2012 to 58 in 2017.

The 2017 agricultural census did not include reporting for hemp and cannabis farms because the crops were not federally recognized.

Dave Losh, the Oregon state statistician for the USDA, says every effort was made to filter out reporting for cannabis products when they were identified in responses, and that requests for census data were not sent to agricultural operations registered exclusively as hemp and cannabis producers.

Losh said they are preparing now for the 2022 census and are considering how to build in reporting for hemp now that the 2018 Farm Bill has normalized production and sales of hemp.

The full 2017 Census of Agriculture can be searched online at www.nass.usda.gov/AgCensus/. County, statewide and national census data is available, as is the historical census back to 1840.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Mail Tribune / Andy AtkinsonOregon’s top agricultural products were cattle, nursery/greenhouse products and hay, according to the 2017 census.