A national agriculture census released Thursday shows that a centuries-old tradition in Maine has withstood present day economic pressures and bucked a national trend.
The 2012 Census of Agriculture, which was conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture, shows that while the number of working farms declined by 4 percent nationally, the number of Maine farms has increased slightly since the last census was done in 2007.
The data, which is preliminary – a more thorough analysis including a county by county breakdown will be released in May – also show that Maine has more working farms than any other state in New England, with Massachusetts and Vermont ranked second and third. The number of farms in New England as a whole also increased during the five-year period.
In 2012, there were 8,174 farms operating in Maine, up from 8,136 in 2007 and 7,196 in 2002. The federal government defines a farm as any establishment that sold a minimum of $1,000 worth of produce or farm goods during a given year. The release of census data from 2012 was delayed by federal budget reductions under sequestration.
Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Walter E. Whitcomb, and his staff extracted Maine data from the census and issued a statement Thursday describing how Maine’s farming industry has fared. Whitcomb said the data represent an important indicator of the status and health of agriculture in Maine and in the nation.
“Although we are aware of the challenges for certain food production sections like dairy, the full census results in the spring will help us to assess our strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for future growth,” Whitcomb said in a press release.
The Census of Agriculture is done every five years. It shows that there were 2.1 million farms in the United States in 2012, and that farmers are getting older – the average age nationally was 58.3. But the national data also showed there has been a small rise in the number of younger farmers aged 25 to 34.
The average age of Maine farmers – 57 – mirrored the national average of 58.3. The number of Maine farmers under age 34 increased from 396 in 2007 to 551 in 2012. There were also more women farmers in Maine in 2012 – 2,381, compared with 2,043 in 2007.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the increase in younger farmers has been spurred by increased consumer interest in where food is grown, government support for locally grown foods and a thriving export market, according to The Associated Press.
The census shows that the market value of crops, livestock and total agricultural products are all at record highs, the AP reported. Farms in the United States sold almost $395 billion in products in 2012, 33 percent more than in 2007.
Maine’s farming numbers look promising, said John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture.
“We remain upbeat but we also want to be cautious. Farming is like the weather, it is up and it is down,” Bott added.
The land devoted to farming in Maine also increased, from 1,347,566 acres in 2007 to 1,455,304 in 2012.
The number of small farms – from 1 to 9 acres – in Maine increased by 15 percent, but the number of midsized farms – 10 to 180 acres – decreased. Maine farms of 500 to 999 acres increased from 330 to 332, and farms of 1,000 acres or more increased from180 to 213.
“The preliminary results show that Maine continues to lead New England in the number of farms,” Gov. Paul R. LePage said in a press release. “The market value of Maine’s agricultural products has increased 24 percent since 2007. The fact that Maine has made progress in a number of areas during a challenging economic environment is a testament to the resilience and hard work of farmers and processors.”
The preliminary census data, which relied on survey information provided by 3 million farmers, was compiled by Gary R. Keough, a statistician with the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: