On May 2, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture. The Census of Agriculture has been conducted since 1840 and currently is collected once every five years. This post looks at the themes of conservation and energy in the Census. You can also view an introductory post on the Census.

Solar panels on a barn on a Vermont farm. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Solar panels on a barn on a Vermont farm. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Grass vs. Cropland

As part of the Census, USDA reports on the extent of pasture and grazing land across the country. The Census breaks this data down into two categories—(1) pasture and grazing land that could have been used for crops without additional improvements; and (2) permanent pasture and rangeland, other than pastured cropland and pastured woodland.

Category one includes high quality land that could easily be used for crop production, but is instead retained as pasture. It also includes acres of crops hogged or grazed but not harvested prior to grazing. Category two includes both high quality and low quality pasture, but it must be unusable for crop production without additional improvements.

In 2007, the amount of land devoted to pasture and grazing land that could have been used for crop production was 35.8 million acres. By 2012, this number had dropped to 12.8 million acres, a reduction of nearly 65 percent. Going back even further, this number was 60.6 million acres in 2002. While the Census does not speak to the drivers of grassland loss, most of these acres were likely lost to crop production as commodity prices peaked and ethanol demand increased. The amount of pastured woodland also declined by roughly 600,000 acres. In contrast, “permanent” grassland increased between 2007 and 2012 by 1.6 percent, from 408.8 million acres to 415.3 million.

Rotational Grazing

In 2007, farmers practiced rotational or management-intensive grazing on nearly 389,000 farms. By 2012, this number had declined 26 percent to less than 289,000. Three New England states—Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont—plus Nevada saw increases in the number of farms using this type of grazing system. Every other state experienced significant declines.

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has long been a champion of rotational and management-intensive grazing, which USDA promotes through federal conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program. Unfortunately, the Census does not explore the drivers behind the trends that can be pulled from its numbers. However, the decline does parallel a steep decrease in the number of acres devoted to pasture and grazing land, as detailed above.

Fertilizers and Chemicals

The use of manure and the use of commercial fertilizer, lime and soil conditioners both declined between 2007 and 2012. The number of farms using manure declined from 307,073 to 275,420, while the number of farms using commercial fertilizer declined from 1,022,036 to 877,907. In contrast, the number of farms using chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides and defoliants increased by 154,149.

Cover Crops, Tillage, Easements

The 2012 Census contains brand new information on cover cropping, conservation tillage and easements. Unfortunately, USDA did not report this data in the 2007 Census, so we cannot make a comparison. That said, a recent survey conducted by USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program with the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) found that the total acreage of cover crops among farmers surveyed increased 350 percent from 2008 to 2012.

In 2012, farmers grew cover crops on 133,124 farms, covering 10,280,793 acres, not including land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The average number of acres of cover crops per farm was 77, with a plurality of farmers planting between 10 and 50 acres.

The Census found that 76,441 farms were operating under a conservation easement, including federal and non-federal easements. The average easement size was 173 acres, with the majority of easements ranging from 1 to 50 acres.

For the first time, the Census includes data on the extent to which farmers are using reduced- and no-till practices. More than 278,000 farms reported using no-till practices on a total of nearly 96.5 million acres. The average number of no-till acres per farm was 347. Farmers used other types of conservation tillage, such as mulch till and ridge till, on nearly 200,000 farms, covering more than 76.6 million acres. The average number of acres per farm was 392. In total, conservation tillage, including no-till, was more widespread than conventional tillage practices.

Renewable Energy

In 2007, farmers generated energy or electricity on 23,451 farms. The practice was most popular in Hawaii (11 percent of farms in the state). Unfortunately, the 2012 Census used different metrics to measure on-farm energy production, so we cannot compare data across the years. In 2012, farmers used solar panels on 36,331 farms, geoexchange systems on 9,403 farms, wind turbines on 9,054 farms and small hydro systems on 1,323 farms.

The bulk of solar energy production occurred in orchards, on sugarcane and hay farms, and on ranches; only 6 percent of grain and oilseed farms used solar power. Conversely, most wind turbines were located on grain and oilseed farms. The majority of geoexchange systems were located on oilseed, grain, sugarcane and hay farms; and most small hydropower generation occurred on ranches and sugarcane and hay farms.

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