Who are the farmers in the United States?

July 2006

Hi Laura,

Who are the farmers in the United States? By that I mean, what is the racial breakdown of farmers today? How many farmers are women? In general, who is growing my food?

Dale Weitzman,
New York, NY

Oh yes. This is a really important question and a topic of concern for many people who work with farmers. The best place to start is the United States Department of Agriculture's most recent census. The numbers can be a little tricky for a few reasons but it is the only national record that there is to work with - and as you all know, data makes me happy, so off we go!

The one bright spot in these numbers, in my opinion, is the rise in women farmers. The number of farms managed by women rose 13% from 1997 to 2002. There are 822,383 female operators and 237,819 principal operators who are women - roughly one in every ten farms is managed by a woman.

Something else that I wanted to launch into is the average age of farmers. In the interest of sticking to your question, I will only go off on this tangent in a limited way but I can resist taking a little trip. Nationally, the average farmer is 55.3 years old. This is a point of concern because as this number increases we all start to worry about the lack of new farmers getting on the land to even out this trend. There are slight variances, however, in average age based on commodity or type of farming. Organic farmers, on average, are 51 years old, CSA farmers are 43.7, hog and pig farmers are 49.2, and fruit and nut tree farmers at the other end of the spectrum at 57.7 years old. What does this mean? It seems to say that those crops and methods that are hot on the market, like organics and CSA's, are attracting more young farmers that some other crops or growing methods.

OK, now back to your question: I am going to run through some terms just to make sure that we are all on the same footing.

2,128,982 farms: The census defines a farm as any property that brings in $1,000 or more through agricultural activities. This is a very wide definition.

2,128,982 principal operators: Note this is the same number of farms in the US. This is the person in charge.

3,053,801 operators: The 2002 census, the most recent one, is the first to account for more than one farmer on a farm. This means a husband, wife and child could all be counted as operators on one farm.

Now, diversity in farmers: I am a pretty visual person, so I dropped the census numbers into a graph:

I was hoping for a surprise here but this picture drives home one point: Most farmers are white. Latinos are a distant second but do show strong growth of 33,377 farmers from 1997 to 2002.

After looking at these numbers, I got curious about acreage - who farms how much and who owns how much?

Looks familiar. One thing that is worth noting here is the historical land loss of African American farmers over the last century. Ownership peaked in 1910 when more than 218,000 African American farmers owned more than 15 million acres. Today, less than 30,000 African American farmers own just over two million acres. This astonishing loss of land has been largely attributed to widespread lending discrimination on the part of the USDA - something that Native American and women farmers have experienced over the years as well.

Diversity in farmland and farm culture seems pretty limited. It is kind of an unpleasant truth - but it seems that despite the difficulties that farmers face across the board, minority farmers have a pretty steep uphill battle. With the price of farmland skyrocketing and developers itching to build, keeping a farm going or starting one up is a huge challenge. But you all know the drill: Support your farmers! Support Farm Aid so that we can continue to fund organizations like the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Agriculture and Land Based Training Association (ALBA), which work to empower minority farmers and develop strong markets that can help them thrive.

Oh, and send me more stats questions. I love them!