Idaho Farm Profits Up, Number Of Farms Continues To Fall

Feb 21, 2014

In 2012, crops accounted for $3.4 billion dollars of Idaho's ag sector. Livestock and related products totaled $4.3 billion.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

The value of Idaho’s agriculture products grew from $5.7 billion to $7.8 billion between 2007 and 2012. That’s according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA.) It released preliminary results from its Census of Agriculture Thursday.  The USDA provides the update every five years and the latest covers 2012.  

The big increase in farm profits is the most eye catching thing in the new report. But Idaho mostly continues to follow trends that have defined its ag sector for decades.

Between 2007 and 2012, Idaho lost 535 farms. But the total amount of farm land increased and the average size of an Idaho farm grew by 20 acres. John Thompson with Idaho’s Farm Bureau says that’s a long term trend that isn't likely to change much.

“It’s long been said in the potato industry in Idaho that by the time it’s all been said and done, all the potato growers in the state will be able to sit around one table,” Thompson says. “If you look back to 1976 there were 3,500 potato growers in Idaho, and today there’s less than 400. And that’s on the same amount of acreage.”   

But there's an opposite trend happening as well. As people become more interested in where their food comes from and how it’s produced, Thompson says there's also been an increase in very small farms. He thinks the USDA isn't counting all of those.

“The way that USDA defines a farm is loose,"  Thompson says. “There’s a lot of farms that don’t fall in those definitions so they don’t show up.”

If the USDA is counting everything, there was a decline in very small farms in Idaho. But nationally, the ag census shows small and large farms have been the most successful while medium sized farms struggled.

There’s another ag census result Thompson disputes. The census shows that nearly two thirds of Idaho farmers are 55 or older. And only 6 percent are younger than 35. Thompson says the aging of Idaho’s farm population and the difficulty of getting young people into the industry are real challenges. But it’s not as bad as it seems. He points out the census only counts the principle operator and not children and grandchildren who work on a farm and will one day inherit it.

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