Ag census comparison shows drop in acreage, age of producers

David Ostdiek
Communications specialist, UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center

The U.S. Department of Agriculture just released the 2012 Census of Agriculture, and the numbers tell several interesting stories, according to Jessica Johnson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension educator – ag economics.

USDA released the 2012 Census of Agriculture in early May. The census collects information about production expenses, market value of products, and operator characteristics.

The census is on-line at The website describes it as “the leading source of facts and figures about American agriculture. Conducted every five years, the Census provides a detailed picture of U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them.”

Johnson also compiled some highlights of the Ag Census for the Nebraska Panhandle. This presentation can be viewed at

Johnson reviewed some of the statistics for the Panhandle Extension District, which includes 16 counties in the western and north central part of the state – the entire Panhandle and five counties in the sandhills of north-central Nebraska.

In one comparison between 2012 and 2007, farmland acreage in western Nebraska showed a 2.5 percent decrease from the prior census. Most of the decrease was in cropland acres. Respondents reported slightly more irrigated cropland acres.

How was the crop acreage distributed among the various commodities? The Census of Agriculture indicates about one-third is in wheat, about one-third in hay, about one-quarter in corn, and the reminder divided among dry edible beans, proso millet, sugarbeets, sunflower, and other crops, such as potatoes, peas and sorghum.

The ag census does not necessarily indicate a continuous trend of farmland loss, according to Johnson. It might reflect the conditions that exist in the year the census is conducted. “You have to consider the conditions in the year the census was conducted,” she said. “It’s a snapshot, not a continuum.”

For example, 2012 was one of the warmest and driest years on record. In 2012, Scottsbluff received only 3 inches of rainfall during the growing season, compared to 5.2 inches during the 2007 growing season, when the previous census was conducted.

The severe drought that appeared to peak in 2012 also could have contributed to the decline in the cow inventory, Johnson said. The number of cows was down 13 percent in 2012 compared to 2007.

Another story told by the ag census is in the age of principal operators of farms and ranches. These findings were steady from 2007 to 2012 and indicate an aging group of people running farms and ranches in western Nebraska, Johnson said.

Twenty-three percent of those who responded to the census were over the age of 70, and an additional 9 percent to 10 percent were in the 65- to 69-year-old category, she said.

“Almost one third of the principle operators were over the age of 65,” she said. About 17 percent of the census respondents are younger than 44, which is little changed from 2007.

Johnson said it’s important for producers to respond to the Census of Agriculture, because all of the information reported by USDA is used by UNL Extension and other agencies as a meter of what is happening in the region’s agricultural sector.

“It’s important that producers respond so we can better gauge what’s happening, and are better able to serve them.”

According to USDA, census data is used to make decisions about many things that directly impact farmers, including:

· community planning

· store/company locations

· availability of operational loans and other funding

· location and staffing of service centers

· farm programs and policies