Wichita The nation's shrinking numbers of farmers worked more acres, got older and grew increasingly more diverse, National Agricultural Statistics Service reported Tuesday.
Preliminary data released Tuesday for the 2002 Census of Agriculture, an in-depth snapshot of U.S. agriculture taken every five years, portrayed a changing picture among the nation's 2.12 million farms.
That number was down from the 2.21 million farms counted during the 1997 farm census. But their size grew from an average 431 acres to 441 acres during the same time span. More than 939.5 million acres of land in the nation is farmland.
A farm, for the purposes of the survey, is defined as any place where $1,000 or more of agricultural products are produced and sold.
In Kansas, the survey counted 64,348 farms in 2002, down from 65,476 in 1997.
"It should come as no shock to anyone in Kansas that there are fewer farmers and larger farms. That is indicative of a whole number of structural trends impacting agriculture that is borne out by this census," said Mike Matson, spokesman for the Kansas Farm Bureau.
What caught the attention of Kansas statisticians was the breakdown on the types of farms lost, said Eddie Wells, statistician for the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service.
Between the two census years, Kansas lost 2,244 farms that had sales between $100,000 and nearly $500,000. By contrast, those making less than $2,500 in sales grew by more than 7,000.
"When you look at the total, it didn't change much in the number of farms -- but again, look at the type of farms changing," Wells said.
About 47.22 million acres of the state are now farmed, up from 46.65 million in 1997. Kansas farms also got bigger in size, now averaging 734 acres compared to 712 acres in 1997.
"None of these numbers are surprising and all tend to bolster the belief that we have had in this organization for some time -- that the face of Kansas agriculture is getting older and farms are getting larger and there are fewer folks doing it," Matson said.
The state has 90,338 farm operators, including 21,603 women.
Kansas also had an unexplained surge in the number of women among principal farm operators, Wells said.
In 1997, 4,272 of the main operators of a farm were women. By 2002, that number had surged to 5,659 women listed as the farm's main operator.
Kansas statisticians were baffled by that jump, although there is some speculation it could indicate a growing number of farm wives who are taking over farm operations after the death of their aging husbands.
The average age for a Kansas farmer was nearly 56, compared to about 54 in the previous survey.
"There are clear questions that arise with an aging farmer-rancher demographic," Matson said. "Who will do this a generation from now? What will happen to the land?"
Kansas farms mostly supported just one household: 48,855 of them shared the net income of the farm. Another 10,023 farms shared the net income between two households.
The census found that 63,847 Kansas farmers were white, down from 65,094 in 1997. It also counted 119 black farmers in 2002 in the state, down from 122 counted five years earlier.
Another 613 farmers of all races listed Hispanic origin.
"In Kansas, there really isn't an issue with race," Wells said. "Kansas is pretty homogenous when it comes to race."
Meanwhile, the census found the nation's farmers a far more diverse group than ever.
The census counted 3.11 million farmers nationwide, including 847,680 women.
The survey found blacks, American Indian, Hispanic and women operators all were significant contributors to agriculture -- and their numbers have all increased since 1997.
The ranks of white farmers fell from 2.15 million in 1997 to 2.06 million in 2002. During the same time, the numbers of black farmers grew from 26,785 to 29,145 farmers. Some 72,329 operators across all races also listed Hispanic origin.
Nationally, the average age of farmers in 2002 was just a fraction above 55 years, compared to an average of 54 years in 1997.
For the first time, the census also asked how many households each farm supported. The numbers showed the vast majority of U.S. farms supported only one household -- 1.64 million of them nationwide.
An additional 314,043 farms supported two households.