US census a ‘wake-up call’ for need for investment in climate-smart agriculture

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

The US Census of Agriculture census is released every five years. Image: Getty/
The US Census of Agriculture census is released every five years. Image: Getty/

Related tags Climate tech Precision agriculture

Farmers need more opportunities to diversify their revenue streams by adopting climate-smart agriculture, according to US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Speaking at the release of the 2022 Census of Agriculture​, Vilsack complained that too many farms and too much farmland is being lost.

Conducted every five years by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service, the latest Census of Agriculture revealed a concerning decline in the total number of US farms and farmland continues.

Advancements in productivity mean farmers can do more with less land (US farms produced US$543 billion in agricultural products in 2022, up from US$389 billion in 2017). But around 142,000 farms and 20 million acres were lost between 2017 and 2022 – mostly the smaller farms less able to bear the brunt of rising costs. Most farmers are relying on second incomes, lamented Vilsack. “As a country, are we okay with losing that many farms?” he asked. “Are we okay with losing that much farmland or is there a better way?”

The average age of farmers continues to rise too, up 0.6 years from 2017 to 58.1. That’s a smaller increase than between prior censuses, however. And the data also show a slight rise in the number of new and beginning farmers and producers under the age of 35 producers.

More farms using renewable energy to move away from fossil fuels

The survey also reinforces some of the steps already taken to futureproof the sector, Vilsack claimed. Farms with internet access continued to rise from 75% in 2017 to 79% in 2022. A total of 153,101 farms and ranches used renewable energy producing systems compared to 133,176 in 2017, a 15% increase. Most farms (76%) with renewable energy systems reported using solar panels.

Precision agriculture practices (a new item for 2022) is used at 226,092 farms or 17,985,831 acres. The survey defined precision agricultural as the use of practices that utilise technology to improve agricultural productivity or efficiency by connecting the practice to a digital environment for crop or livestock production. Several examples of precision agriculture practices are the use of global positioning (GPS) guidance systems, GPS yield monitoring and soil mapping, variable rate input applications, use of drones for scouting fields or monitoring livestock, electronic tagging, precision feeding, and robotic milking.

Cropland on which no-till practices (aimed at decreasing the amount of soil erosion tillage causes in certain soils) were used rose from 279,370 farms (or 104,452,339 acres) in 2017 to 300,954 farms (or 105,208,515 acres).

However, the number of farms enrolled in USDA conservation programmes (paying farmers to leave environmentally important areas such as wetlands), fell from 238,041 farms in 2017 (or 22,959,083 acres) to 220,388 in 2022 or 21,111,463 acres.

A ‘wake-up call’

More opportunities are therefore needed to be made available for farmers to diversify their revenue streams, according to the agriculture secretary. “It’s important for us to invest in climate smart agriculture because that creates an opportunity for farms to qualify potentially for eco-system market credits, which is cash coming into the farm for environmental results that can only occur on the farm. The farm then creates a second stream of income.”

The circular economy is potentially another route to unlocking new revenue streams, he said. “It’s important for us to create the notion of bio-product production: the ability to transition agricultural waste with little value and converting it into its own commodity like sustainable aviation fuel or a wide variety of biofuels that can replace our reliance on fossil fuels and petroleum-based products.”

Opportunities for climate-smart agriculture present a new model for the industry that focuses less on production at all costs and more on building up small producers, Vilsack added.

“We think there is an opportunity… in creating a different model,” he said. “One that acknowledges and recognises the importance of production agriculture. But one that also sends a message of hope and opportunity out to smaller and mid-sized operators by giving them multiple sources of revenue coming in from the farm.”

A Vilsack statement added that a combination of trade wars, the pandemic and policies that furthered a ‘get big or get out’ mentality pushed more people out of farming in the five years since the last census, than in any other census period this century.

“There is more work to do to ensure we maintain strong momentum in terms of farm income, and to make sure that income is equitably distributed among farms of all sizes so more can stay in business and contribute to their local economies,” he said.

The “report is a wake-up call to everyone who plays a role in agriculture policy or who shares an interest in preserving a thriving rural America – we are at a pivotal moment, in which we have the opportunity to hold tight to the status quo and shrink our nation’s agriculture sector further, or we can choose a more expansive, newer model that creates more opportunity, for more farmers.” 

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