A look at Minnesota farming in 7 charts

Dairy cows rest in their barn on Jason Reber's farm in Mantorville, Minn.
Dairy cows rest in their barn on Jason Reber's farm in Mantorville, Minn., in March 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Minnesota remains one of the country's top agricultural states, even as the number of farms continues to decline, according to data released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA conducts the Census of Agriculture every five years, and the data released Thursday is from 2017. The census is actually a survey with information self-reported by farmers who return a questionnaire to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

In 2017, Minnesota ranked first in sales of grain, such as corn, soybeans, oilseeds and dry peas. It ranked second in hog sales and fourth in dairy sales. Sales of all ag products totaled $18.4 billion in 2017, according to the USDA.

The federal government has been collecting farm data since 1840 — and since 1982, the survey has gone out to farmers across the country every five years. It's especially helpful in tracking trends, said Dan Lofthus, Minnesota's USDA state statistician.

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"Has the average farm size continued to go up? Has it stayed the same? Has it gone down? ... All of those types of trends are interesting because it gives people a feeling for the general well-being or health or vibrancy of agriculture at each of these different levels," he said.

"I think the biggest benefit overall is the fact that you have a really complete set of information that's very local to each person who's interested," Lofthus said, "so it's local down to the county where you live. And within that county, you can describe what agriculture looks like as of 2017."

And you could compare that data with other data from, say, 1860, when Minnesota only counted farms larger than 3 acres and reported 17,990 farms. Most at that time were less than 50 acres in size. In 2017, Minnesota had an estimated 68,822 farms of all sizes and the average farm size was 371 acres.

In 1860, Minnesota farmers produced 2,957,673 pounds of butter; 2,186,993 bushels of wheat; 34,285 pounds of honey; 38,938 pounds of tobacco and 52 pounds of silk cocoons on its diverse list of farm products. In 2017, Minnesota produced 79,313,000 bushels of wheat, 7,653,535 pounds of honey, more than 12 million tons of sugar beets and harvested more than 16 million acres of soybeans and corn for grain.

Today, data collected from farmers help shape marketing strategies for agribusinesses that supply what farmers need to grow crops or raise livestock.

"The Census of Agriculture provides all of those businesses and agribusiness companies a way to do some market research and a way to look at their strategy so that they're able to supply the things the farmers need — at the right quantities and at the right times," said Lofthus.

Some of the trends Lofthus thinks might be of interest this year include hot topics like cover crops — a crop grown not for production but to maintain the health of the soil — and a survey of other conservation practices farmers are being encouraged to use as a way to improve soil health and water quality.

"I think something else people will be very interested in is some of the demographic data and a little more detail on who is making decisions on farms," he said. "So, whether it's a beginning farmer, or woman farmer or a farmer with military experience all those different things can provide some insight into what agriculture looks like within Minnesota."

According to the USDA, nearly three-fourths of farmers participated in the 2017 census. Here's a snapshot of what the data say about farming in Minnesota.

1) Number of Minnesota farms continues to decline, average farm size goes up

The number of farms in Minnesota has declined and is the lowest it's been in a decade. Minnesota has an estimated 68,822 farms of all sizes and types in 2017. The USDA asks producers who have sold at least $1,000 worth of goods to participate in its surveys. The number of acres dedicated to farmland has decreased some, but the average farm size is now 371 acres, the highest it's been in a decade.

2) Dairy and hog farms continue consolidation

Minnesota remains among the top hog and dairy states — No. 2 for hog sales and No. 4 for dairy sales in the United States. It's tough going in the dairy industry with low milk prices and excess milk in the market.

In Minnesota, the number of dairy cows has decreased over the past 10 years, but not as much as the number of farms. The number of pigs in the state has increased while the number of hog farms has gone down. There are now less than half as many dairy and hog farms in Minnesota as there were in 1997, according to the USDA surveys.

3) The size of Minnesota's farms varies — a lot

An estimated 14,000 farms in Minnesota have 49 acres or less, but depending on what the farm grows or raises, that's big enough. In contrast, farms producing corn, soybeans, wheat and other grains can be larger than 2,000 acres. Farmers can increase the size of their operations either by buying more land or renting from neighbors.

4) Where cropland dominates the landscape

In many of Minnesota's 87 counties, cropland dominates the landscape. In one-third of Minnesota's counties, cropland takes up more than 75 percent of land area. The western and southern halves of the state lead the way in the number of acres dedicated to cropland. In Traverse, Martin and Renville counties, cropland takes up 95 percent of the land area — the highest percentage in the state.

Where won't you find many row crops? Northeastern Minnesota and Ramsey County have few acres of cropland compared to the rest of the state.

The agriculture industry has given conservation more attention in recent years. More farmers are planting cover crops, which are planted alongside cash crops like corn and soybeans so that the land stays green longer. Cover crops can boost soil health and promote better water quality.

More farmers are also trying conservation tillage or no-till, which helps prevent erosion and also promotes soil health. On the other hand, farmers are adding more drainage tile under their fields which can help dry their fields out faster during wet periods. While tiling can help farmers boost yield and be more resilient to heavy rains, it raises concerns about water quality and flooding. The USDA asked farmers about all these practices for the first time in 2012.

6) Minnesota farmers are mostly men, but that's changing

The number of women as primary producers is increasing. Farmers are getting older. The average age was 58 in 2017.

7)Minnesota farmers are overwhelmingly white

This is a snapshot of race demographic information about people involved in operating farms in Minnesota. In the 2017 USDA census, terminology and definitions changed for many demographic categories, making it difficult to compare the data across different census years.