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Midwest, U.S. continue to lose farms, but Nebraska among states bucking the trend

by Carolyn Orr ~ May 2014 ~ Stateline Midwest »
More than 29,000 farmers in the Midwest called it quits between 2007 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest census, a period in which the region also lost farmland while the average size of operations grew.
The new statistics reflect longtime trends occurring not only in the Midwest, but nationally as well.
But one state that bucked some of these trends is Nebraska, which recorded one of the largest U.S. gains in the number of farm operations — nearly 5 percent over the five-year period. Nebraska farmers are also the youngest in the nation, with an average age of 55.7 years old.
A global leader in red-meat production, Nebraska recently became the No. 1 cattle-feeding state in the nation. Livestock production and a strong ethanol industry provide a ready market for Nebraska’s large corn supply (it, along with Iowa and Illinois, produces almost half of the nation’s corn), and the state also boasts a wide range of companies that use the commodities its farmers produce.
Policymakers, meanwhile, have established several programs to promote the industry, with one emphasis being support for young farmers. (Many states in the Midwest, in fact, support young farmers through outreach and financial assistance.)
For example, Nebraskans who rent land, equipment or livestock to a new farmer are eligible for a 10 percent income tax credit. And under the 100 Acre and Beef Cow Advantage programs, students learn how to create successful business plans and ranch-transfer programs. The programs are partnerships among the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, the state and the USDA.
Nebraska also has a decade-old Livestock Friendly County program. Twenty-six of the state’s 93 counties now receive this designation, which requires local officials to streamline certain zoning and siting rules.
In recent years, Nebraska and other states in the western half of the Midwest have fared much better economically than states in the eastern half — with one primary reason being the strength of the farm economy.
But the new USDA census figures also show that the recession had an impact on farmers. For example, the number of very small farms fell 9 percent during the five-year period. These small farmers help meet demand for locally grown foods, but they may have been adversely affected by decreased spending during the economic downturn.
In 2012, nearly two-thirds of the Midwest’s farms had gross sales of less than $50,000, an indication that farming is not the primary income for many farm families; since 2007, the share of farmers with primary occupations off the farm grew from 49 to 51 percent. Only 6 percent of the Midwest’s farms (and 3.8 percent nationally) had gross sales of more than $1 million.


Article written by Carolyn Orr, staff liaison for the Midwestern Legislative Conference Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee. The committee's co-chairs are Indiana Rep. Bill Friend and Minnesota Rep. Rick Hansen.