Park County ag: Growing older, farming more land

Posted 4/14/09

It isn't easy to summarize how people use their agricultural land across the state or in Park County, Gunn said.

“Some larger farms are getting larger, swallowing mid-size operations,” Gunn said. But smaller farms are also becoming …

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Park County ag: Growing older, farming more land


{gallery}04_14_09/farm{/gallery}Keith Schaefer (standing) and Brad May plant canola seed on Monday morning at the University of Wyoming Powell Research and Extension Center. Tribune photo by Toby Bonner USDA census shows average farmer in his 50sWhat does a Park County farmer look like?The average farmer is slowly growing older, statistically, and is likely to live on a farm he and his family own.The recently-released 2007 Census of Agriculture paints a picture of the slowly-changing face of agriculture in Park County and Wyoming, said Steve Gunn, acting director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cheyenne field office.

It isn't easy to summarize how people use their agricultural land across the state or in Park County, Gunn said.

“Some larger farms are getting larger, swallowing mid-size operations,” Gunn said. But smaller farms are also becoming more numerous. “We are seeing an increase in hobby farms – people who have a job, but live in the country and have some horses.”

For the census, completed every five years, the USDA defines a farm as an operation that generates $1,000 or more in agricultural sales in one year, a figure that has not changed since 1974. Gunn acknowledges that amount is low and could skew some results. A person could conceivably sell a couple of horses, some hay or other small items and qualify as a farm, he said.

“This whole thing could look really different if we raised it from $1,000 to, say, $10,000,” Gunn said.

“If you look at the numbers long and hard,” Gunn said, “those small ‘farms' may not make money, but yet they're doing it because of the benefits they derive.”

In Park County, the 2007 census reported 782 farms and ranches with 881,736 acres. That's up from 2002, when the census listed 711 farms with 810,302 acres.

Gunn cautioned the numbers may not include public land grazing allotments, important to many Wyoming ranchers but possibly not accurately accounted for.

“They're using it as a resource, but it may not be just theirs,” Gunn said. Also, not every farmer or rancher completes the 24-page form mistake free.

“They're not trained in filling out forms,” Gunn said of ag operators who complete the voluntary survey. “And we have a large, fairly-complicated one.”

Other factors that influence the accuracy of the census include farm or ranch land that straddles state or county lines, a common occurrence, Gunn said. Sometimes that land may be reported in one state or county in one census but in another in the next.

In Park County, as well as the rest of the state, farmers are growing older.

According to the ag census, 1,321 people in Park County qualify as farmers or “principal operators,” a term that includes ranchers. That's up from 1,176 farmers in 2002. Of those 1,321 operators, 699 live on the farm they operate, and 452 are women.

The ag census lists the average age for a Park County farmer at 56.7 years, up from the average age of 52.6 in 2002.

In 2007, 35 farmers listed their age as younger than 35, down slightly from 42 farmers in 2002. Another 78 are 35-44 years old.

In Park County, 568 ag operators are between 45 and 69 years old. Another 101 are 70 or older.

Gunn said the increasing age does not surprise him. On one hand, older farmers who are semi-retired may still have enough resources to meet the minimum farm definition. Younger people may not have the resources yet to buy into a farm operation.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal last month vetoed legislation to provide financial help to young farmers, saying the measure was flawed and overly complicated although its premise was good.

In Park County, the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service has offered classes this year to young people interested in farming and to people farming on smaller parcels. Gunn said these and similar efforts affect the evolving face of agriculture, which he said is likely to be in flux over the next few years as older farmers retire.

In Park County, some people are on their land for the long term. The 2007 census said 526 ag operators have been on their farm for 10 years or more, averaging 18.6 years on their current farm or ranch. Another 152 have been on their farm for 5 to 9 years.

In 2007, the census found that 517 Park County farmers and ranchers worked at least one day at another job. Although 386 of those farmers list farming as their primary occupation, another 396 list their primary occupation as “other” and may be “hobby” farmers, Gunn said.

In 2002, Park County results listed 388 “primary” farmers with 323 listed as “other” primary occupations.

Most farms are in some type of family ownership, owned by farmers alone or with other family members, in family partnerships or corporations. Those family entities accounted for 746,835 acres in 2007.

Only eight non-family corporations listed land ownership in Park County in 2007 with 117,572 acres.

The 2007 census for the first time measured Internet access, Gunn said, which can indicate rural economics and development and determine what services are available in rural areas. In Park County, 879 farms had Internet access.

The Cheyenne office mailed 14,000-plus forms to Wyoming farm operators in late 2007. Gunn said the survey had an 85-percent return rate in Park County.

“This time there was a concerted effort to get more of the small farms counted,” he said. He credited the high rate of return to several mailings, followed in some cases by personal farm visits to verify information.

Like most surveys, Gunn conceded the ag census is somewhat out of date when it's released.

“People go in and out of farming all the time,” he said, because of sales, deaths and other changes.

Information from the survey can have wide effects, he said. Data is used to write the next Farm Bill, one of its more obvious applications, he said. But banks and insurance companies use the information to make lending and policy coverage decisions and economic development groups use it to decide how funding should be allocated.

Gunn said Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railway officials have used past survey numbers to assign rail cars to different areas of the country.

“It's a good product,” Gunn said. “I believe we do a good service for agriculture when we put this out.”