Economic Tidbits

Producers Aplenty on Nebraska Farms

The trend towards fewer farms garners considerable attention by the media, rural advocates, and policy makers. The number of farms in 2022 was 44,479, down 4 percent from 2017.  Overlooked, though, is the trend towards more producers. According to the 2022 Census of Agriculture, Nebraska producers numbered 82,305, an increase of 4,290 or 5 percent from 2017. Since 2002, the number of producers has increased more than 16 percent. More than 70 percent of counties counted more producers in 2022 compared to 2002, led by Thomas County with an increase of 79 percent (Figure 1). 27 counties had fewer producers in 2022 compared to 2002 with Valley County experiencing the greatest loss, down 28 percent.

FIGURE 1. PERCENTAGE CHANGE IN PRODUCERS, 2002-2022

Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics, Census of Agriculture

Figure 2 maps the 11 counties which experienced increases in producer numbers in each census since 2002. Seven of the gaining counties are in southeast Nebraska, many of them near the state’s population centers. Another two, Lincoln and Buffalo Counties, also have cities with sizable populations. All 11 counties are in the southern half of the state. The nearness to population centers could imply the growth in producer numbers relates to a growth in part-time producers who have jobs off the farm. And because the counties are in the southern half of the state, the increase in producer numbers could be occurring predominantly on crop operations as opposed to livestock operations (further research would be needed to confirm). At the other extreme, two counties, Phelps and Thurston, lost producers in each census. The remaining 80 counties experienced mixed results, losing producers in some censuses, and gaining in others.

FIGURE 2. COUNTIES WITH INCREASES IN PRODUCERS IN EVERY CENSUS SINCE 2002

Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics, Census of Agriculture

Census data also offers insights into changes in producer numbers by size. Figure 3 shows producer numbers in sales categories for each census beginning in 2002. Producers on farms with less than $25,000 in sales far outnumber other categories, accounting for roughly 36 percent of producers in 2022. Also, more producers can be found on larger farms in 2022 compared to 2002. In fact, the number of producers on farms with more than $1 million in sales increased 435 percent since 2002, and those on farms with more than $500,000 in sales increased 155 percent. Lastly, fewer producers can be found on farms with less than $250,000 in sales, the exception being the smallest category where the number has remained relatively stable.

FIGURE 3. CHANGES IN PRODUCER NUMBERS BY SALES, 2002-2022

Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics, Census of Agriculture

One final take from the 2022 Census regarding producer numbers. For perhaps the first time ever, fewer producers reported “farming or ranching” as their primary occupation (39,252) in 2022 than reported “other” as their primary occupation (41,031). At least since 2002, producers who reported farming or ranching as their primary occupation outnumbered those who did not. This change could be indicative of a growing trend towards part-time producers. Or it could be reflective of the need for off-farm income to stabilize farm finances or secure health insurance. 

The number of producers on Nebraska farms and ranches is growing. The growth appears to be fueled by part-time producers where farming is not the primary occupation. The part-timers are more likely to be involved in larger conventional farms or extremely small operations. The trends will likely continue. The global demand for food will require increased output from larger, more economically efficient operations. Part-time producers who can bring unique skill sets to these increasingly complex family operations will be valued. At the same time, the growing demand for locally produced food will provide the opportunity for producers on smaller farms to meet this demand as well.

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