Column:Ag census brings surprises

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 2, 2004

By Gene Hugoson, Agriculture commissioner

The National Agriculture Statistics Service conducts a census of agriculture every five years, and each new set of census numbers brings surprises.

For example, the preliminary 2002 census results published in early February showed that Minnesota has more farms and more land in farms now than it did in 1997 (the year of the previous census).

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According to the census, Minnesota’s total number of farms is now at 80,865, up nearly 3 percent from 78,755 in 1997. The average size of those farms dropped from 350 acres in 1997 to 343 acres in 2002. The census also showed Minnesota’s land in farms at 27.8 million acres, up from 27.6 million in 1997.

The increase in farm numbers was due in large part to growth among the smallest and largest farms. The category of farms that grew fastest since 1997 was 10 to 49 acre farms, a category that includes many of the so-called “hobby farms” on the fringes of the Twin Cities. Minnesota also saw farms with 2,000 or more acres grow slightly, while medium-sized farms saw a slight decline.

Another interesting item from the 2002 census: For the first time, the census numbers documented the important role women play on Minnesota farms. According to the census, there were 114,236 Minnesotans working as farm operators in 2002 and 23 percent (about 26,000) of those farm operators were women.

While the census numbers provide some interesting insights into the state of Minnesota agriculture, the figures I found most interesting showed how important Minnesota agriculture remains as an economic sector.

For the first time, the census looked at the total number of people living in households of farm operators. This number helps us understand how many Minnesotans depend at least in part on agriculture for their livelihood. For 2002, that was more than 260,000 &045; that’s more than 5 percent of the state’s total population.

Overall, the census numbers reveal an industry that is continuing to change. This change is driven in large part by marketplace forces far beyond the control of any individual, or any state for that matter. Like any other sector of our economy, agriculture is looking to compete in a fast-changing environment. There are different ways to thrive in this environment, and part of the beauty of America is that each farmer is free to choose his or her approach to this challenge. So long as that approach fits within confines of law, we should support it. After all, no one knows what the future will bring. Like diversifying a stock portfolio, having a healthy variety of farms and farmers makes Minnesota agriculture more stable and resilient in the long run.

To see the preliminary 2002 agriculture census numbers for yourself, log onto the Minnesota Agriculture Statistics Web site at These numbers are just a sample of the full report expected to be released this summer.

(Gene Hugoson is the Minnesota commissioner of agriculture.)