Fall produce being grown at Foxhollow Farm | Photo by Melissa Chipman

By Bill Estep | Lexington Herald-Leader

More women and young people are farming in Kentucky. More very small and very large farms are operating, though there are fewer in the middle. The overall market value of the state’s crops and animals is up, but some sectors are suffering.

Those are some of the takeaways from the latest census of agriculture, which covered 2017 but was released recently after the U.S. Department of Agriculture crunched the numbers.

The census shows that agriculture remains a significant piece of Kentucky’s economy, with the overall value of agricultural products sold topping $5.7 billion in 2017, up from $5 billion in the prior census year of 2012.

The sources of farm income have changed significantly in some cases, however.

Farming census | U.S. Department of Agriculture

For instance, farmers grew 173 million pounds of tobacco on 2,618 farms in the state in 2017, down from 497.8 million pounds on 46,850 farms in 1997, before the federal government ended a system of production quotas and price supports that had helped provide a reliable source of tobacco income for farmers since the 1930s.

Farm receipts from tobacco totaled $351 million in 2017, down only slightly from $356 million in 2012, but far below the $828 million total in 1997, according to USDA tallies.

However, production of corn for grain in 2017, at 220 million bushels, was far higher than in prior agriculture census years, and soybean production also was up significantly in 2017.

The federal government does a census of agriculture every five years, gathering a raft of information for a detailed picture of farm numbers, production, finances, land use, the age of producers and other issues.

The census helps show the importance of agriculture in the U.S., and farmers, ranchers, companies and policymakers can use the information in making decisions, according to the Agriculture Department.

The top commodities in Kentucky in 2017 were grains, oilseeds, dry beans and dry peas, at $1.87 billion in market value, according the census.

That was followed by poultry and eggs, $1.3 billion; cattle and calves, $1 billion; horses and ponies, $465 million; and tobacco, $351 million.

Poultry was tops in market value if corn, soybeans and other grains had been considered separately.

The census did not include data on hemp production.

The censuses also illustrates trends. Consider these in Kentucky, for instance:

▪ The number of farms in the state went down from 77,064 in 2012 to 75,966 in 2017, though that was still one of the highest totals in the country.

The number of very small farms — one to nine acres — shot up from 4,337 in 2012 to 6,211 in 2017, while farms covering 5,000 acres or more increased their total holdings by more than 150,000 acres in that time.

The numbers show that Kentucky agriculture continues to be in line with national trends — large farms getting even bigger in order to control costs through economies of scale, and a growing number of small operations that benefit from expanding local consumer and direct marketing opportunities, said Will Snell, an agriculture economist at the University of Kentucky.

Farmers markets, which are growing in Kentucky, are an example of that local consumer base.

“Mid-size operations are getting squeezed, depending on off-farm income to survive,” Snell said.

Any plot that produces $1,000 or more worth of agricultural products in the census year, or normally would have, counts as a farm in the census.

The counties reporting the highest numbers of farms in the state were Barren, with 1,899, and Warren and Pulaski, each with more than 1,700.

The increase in small farms fits with another finding in the census, which showed that 31,921 of the state’s farms sold less than $2,500 worth of products.

▪ The total amount of farmland in Kentucky in 2017 was 12.9 million acres, down only slightly from 2012.

Nationwide, the amount of land in farms went down from 914 million acres in 2012 to 900 million in 2017.

▪ The inventory of beef cattle and the number of cows and calves sold were comparable in latest two census years, but the number of milk cows dropped sharply, from 71,783 to 57,645.

The state’s dairy industry has suffered from several years of low prices and competition from large consolidated operations elsewhere.

▪ Kentucky continued to lead the nation in the value of horses sold.

The number of horses in the state wasn’t the highest — Texas was tops — but the value of horses sold was $465 million, almost four times as much as in Texas.

Horses helped push Fayette and Bourbon counties into the top three counties for value of agricultural products sold.

Graves County, in far Western Kentucky, led in that category with $346 million, but Fayette was second at $216 million and Bourbon totaled $210 million, according to a presentation by David Knopf, regional director of the National Agricultural Statistics Service in Louisville.

▪ The number of male producers edged down slightly from 2012, but the number of female producers increased by more than 11,000, Knopf said.

Alvina Maynard joined the ranks of the state’s agricultural producers in 2012 with River Hill Ranch in Madison County, where she tends to 68 alpacas with her husband and two children, ages 8 and 4.

She sells products at the farmers market in Lexington and does agritourism.

“The heart of the why is wanting to create a better future for my children and their generation,” Maynard said.

▪ The state also recorded an increase in younger farmers, helping push the average age down slightly to 56.2 years.

The number of producers under age 25 in the state went up from 1,780 in 2012 to 2,391, and there also was an increase in the 25- to 34-year-old group, Knopf said.

The census counted a total of 125,155 producers involved in Kentucky agriculture in 2017.

Agriculture remains a family business in the state, Knopf said, with 97 percent of farms operated by a family or a family and close relatives.

“Kentucky agriculture is diverse (apples to zucchinis), stable in both number of farms and income of farms, has a diverse group of operators (men, women, young and old), and influences every county in the state,” Knopf said in an email.

▪ More farms reported net financial losses than net gains in 2017, showing the precarious nature of a business in which producers are at the mercy of factors beyond their control, such as weather and changes in markets.

However, net farm income increased to $1.57 billion in 2017 from $883 million in 2012, and the average net income per farm was $20,784 in 2017, compared to $11,453 in 2012, Knopf said.

The net income of farms in the black was much higher than the net losses of farms in the red, Knopf said.

Some years are better than others, obviously; agricultural cash receipts totaled $6.5 billion in 2014 compared to an estimated $5.7 billion in 2018, for instance, according to a presentation Snell prepared.

“Agriculture has always been cyclical. We have ups, we have downs,” said Ryan Bivens, who chairs the Kentucky Soybean Promotion Board and plans to grow 7,500 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in LaRue and Hardin counties this year.

Bivens said profit margins have been squeezed for many producers, in part because of increased costs for products such as fertilizer, feed and equipment.

When he started farming in 2002, his cost to plant corn was $180 to $200 an acre; now it’s $700, Bivens said.

Bivens said one challenge for farmers last year was big stockpiles of grain. Soybean prices dropped 20 percent when China stopped taking shipments in its trade fight with the Trump Administration, he said.

However, “I still think there’s a bright future in grain production,” Bivens said.

There were positive trends in the 2017 census, but the growth in market value has not been uniform among commodities and regions, Snell said.

Western Kentucky has fared better, in part because higher grain yields have offset lower prices and the poultry industry has done well, he said.

Livestock prices have been lower but the sector has been supported by strong exports, Snell said.

Market conditions have deteriorated for some Kentucky farm commodities since the 2017 snapshot, Snell said.

This year is a critical one for agriculture in Kentucky and the U.S. “as farmers as well as their lenders are watching depleted cash flows leading to liquidity, and equity challenges,” Snell said.