Ag census confirms decline in county agriculture
ADDISON COUNTY — One need only look around to see that the rural landscape in Vermont is changing as the number and type of farms changes. A recently released big-picture look at our farm economy shows that agricultural production appears to be changing faster in Addison County than it is in Vermont as a whole.
More giant and tiny farms but fewer mid-size ones, less cropland in production, fewer cows but more milk — all these trends are shown in the latest USDA Census for Agriculture.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts the census every five years and compiles statistics at the national, state and county levels. Statistics are used for research purposes and to determine funding for farm programs, extension service projects and land-grant colleges and universities.
The 2017 census was released this past April.
The statistics, when compared with 2012, reflect “an ongoing shift in farming,” and a “downward trend in land use,” said Jeff Carter, an agronomy specialist at UVM Extension in Middlebury.
Overall, it showed that between 2012 and 2017 Addison County reported greater declines than Vermont in the following key categories:
• number of farms.
• acreage in farming.
• acres of corn and forage.
• number of milk cows.
• number of farms reporting milk sales.
• income from milk sales.
• total market value of agricultural products sold.
• average net farm income.
In 2012 Addison County reported 814 total farms. That number dropped to 720 in 2017, an 11.5 percent decrease.
Over the same period, Vermont as a whole saw only a 7.2 percent decrease.
Most of the county’s decline in farm numbers came from operations larger than 180 acres. The county lost nearly a quarter of those farms between 2012 and 2017, whereas Vermont only lost 11 percent.
Between 2012 and 2017, Addison County
• added 6 farms of 1–9 acres (+10.3 percent).
• lost 19 farms of 10 – 49 acres (-7.8 percent).
• lost 16 farms of 50 – 179 acres (-6.9 percent).
• lost 31 farms of 180 – 499 acres (-19.4 percent).
• lost 28 farms of 500 to 999 acres (-35.4 percent).
• lost 6 farms of 1,000+ acres (-14 percent).
Decreases at the upper end of the spectrum are likely attributable to farm consolidation rather than operations going out of business, Carter said.
“It used to be that the 200-acre farms were getting gobbled up by the 300-acre farms,” Carter said. “Now the 500-acre farms are getting gobbled up by the 1,000-acre farms.”
Addison County saw an even more dramatic decline in farmland. The county reported an 18.5 percent decrease in agricultural acreage while the state lost only 4.7 percent.
In fact, the county’s loss of 38,488 acres of farmland between 2012 and 2017 accounted for nearly two-thirds of farmland lost in the entire state.
County farm acreage losses were especially acute where crop production was concerned. While the state reported a 2 percent decrease in total acres of cropland between 2012 and 2017, Addison County reported a 15 percent decrease. The county’s loss of 19,067 cropland acres dwarfed the acreage loss across Vermont — 8,647 — suggesting that other counties added more than 10,000 acres of farmland over the same period.
According to census figures, it would appear that most of this decline in Addison County came from livestock feed.
In 2017 the county planted 24 percent fewer acres in corn than in 2012, and reported a 20 percent decline in land used for forage. Those two categories alone accounted for a decline in 25,141 acres used for agriculture between the two census years.
Part of that decline could be attributed to the price of corn, Carter said.
The price of a bushel of corn dropped from $8.24 in July of 2012 to $3.80 in July of 2017, so it’s possible that county farmers decided it would be cheaper to import corn from the Midwest, he suggested.
The primary consumers of corn and forage also saw a decline in their numbers, according to the census, although in this case the county was about on par with the state.
In 2012 Addison County reported a total of 32,498 milk cows. By 2017 that number had dropped to 30,381 (-6.5 percent).
Vermont’s dairy herd also declined between 2012 and 2017 — by about 4 percent.
Milk sales, on the other hand, told a vastly different story.
In 2012, 934 Vermont farms reported milk sales totaling more than $504 million.
In 2017 the farms had decreased by 20 percent to 744, but milk sales had increased statewide by more than half a million dollars.
In Addison County, not only did the number of farms reporting milk sales decline from 140 to 96 (31 percent), but total milk sales also went down — by about $8.7 million to $123 million in 2017.
In 2012 the state of Vermont sold $776 million worth of agricultural products. Five years later, sales had risen to $781 million, though the 0.6 percent increase was not enough to keep up with inflation.
Addison County did not see an increase in sales, however.
In 2012 the county sold $186 million worth of agricultural goods — more than any other county in Vermont.
In 2017 sales declined by $13 million (7 percent) to $173 million, and Addison County fell to number two behind Franklin County.
And while Vermont as a whole saw a 26 percent increase in net farm income between 2012 and 2017 (from $20,772 per farm to $26,215), Addison County saw a slight decline (from $52,221 per farm to $50,213).
Vermont’s top-five agricultural products in 2017 were:
1. milk from cows.
2. cattle and calves.
3. other crops and hay.
4. maple products.
5. nursery, greenhouse, floriculture and sod.
Addison County reported similar sales, except that “fruits, tree nuts and berries” snuck in at number five.
The most expensive things about running a farm in Addison County matched up with categories in the rest of the state. The top five production costs for farmers were:
2. hired labor.
3. supplies and repairs.
As with net farm income, production expenses in Addison County were about twice as high as they were statewide. In 2017, the average county farmer incurred $202,000 in expenses while the average Vermont farmer incurred only $95,777.
The total number of farms and the amount of farming acres in Addison County and in Vermont have risen and fallen over the past 20 years. Neither hit an all-time low in 2017.
Where the size of individual operations is concerned, however, the trend is clear: the average farm is getting smaller.
From 1997 to 2017 the average farm size in Vermont dropped from 217 acres to 175. Over the same period the median farm size was cut nearly in half — from 140 acres to 74.
At the same time, Addison County’s average farm size shrank from 300 acres to 236 acres.
Another clear trend over the past 20 years, at least at the state level, is a move away from livestock-related products and a move toward crops.
In 1997, livestock products made up 87 percent of Vermont’s total agricultural sales. That has steadily declined in every USDA survey since then. In 2017 it stood at 76 percent.
In 2017 milk accounted for 64.7 percent of total agricultural sales in Vermont, but in Addison County that number was higher: 71 percent.
• Government payments to farmers in Addison County dropped from $3.8 million in 2012 to $1.36 million in 2017.
• At the same time that Addison County lost 2,117 milk cows, it gained 742 beef cows, according to the census.
• In 2017, Addison County produced more than three-quarters of the state’s soybeans.
• Of Addison County’s nearly 170,000 farm acres, only 273 were dedicated to vegetables harvested for sale in 2017. The ratio — 0.16 percent — ranked 6th in the state.
• The word “hemp” appears exactly zero times in Vermont’s 2017 Census of Agriculture. In 2022 that is very likely to change.
Reach Christopher Ross at email@example.com.