Much attention is paid to the trend towards fewer farms over time. Overlooked is the growth in the number of producers at the same time. Data from the USDA Census of Agriculture shows the number of producers in Nebraska increased from 70,668 to 78,015 between 2002 and 2017, a 10 percent bump. Figure 1 maps the percentage changes in producer numbers in each county between 2002 and 2017. Seventeen counties had fewer producers in 2017 compared to 2002 with Rock County having the biggest loss, down 21 percent. In contrast, 76 counties had more producers in 2017, led by Gosper County with a growth of 66 percent. In looking at Figure 1, no regional patterns in changes in producer numbers emerge. Whether or not a county’s numbers grew seems random.
Figure 1. Percentage Change in Producers, 2002-2017
However, in looking at whether a county shows persistent increases or decreases in producers over time, a different picture emerges. Figure 2 shows the number of censuses producer numbers in counties increased beginning with the 2007 census. Counties colored dark blue are ones where numbers increased in each of the three censuses. There were 18 such counties. Counties with no color indicate those which lost producers in each census. Two counties, Phelps and Thurston, fall into this category. A definite regional pattern appears in Figure 2. Many counties in southeast Nebraska had increases in producer numbers in each census. Ten gaining counties are in this region, many of them relatively near population centers. The remaining eight counties are scattered across the state with two of them, Lincoln and Buffalo Counties, also having cities with sizable populations.
Figure 2. Number of Censuses Producers Increased by County
Breaking down changes in producer numbers by sales can also help enlighten where the growth in numbers is occurring. Figure 3 graphs the number of producers categorized by sales for each census beginning in 2002. Several things stand out. First, producers on farms with less than $25,000 in sales is by far the largest category, comprising roughly 38 percent of total producers in 2017. Second, producers on farms with more than $250,000 in sales or less than $25,000 in sales were greater in number in 2017 compared to 2002. In fact, producers on farms with more than $1 million in sales increased 279 percent and those on farms with more than $500,000 in sales increased 137 percent between 2002 and 2017. Lastly, the number of producers with less than $250,000 in sales but more than $25,000 declined. Also, relevant to understanding the changes, producers who reported farming or ranching as their primary occupation has remained stable over time ranging between 40,000 to 41,000 producers, or between 52-56 percent of all producers.
Figure 3. Changes in Producer Numbers by Sales, 2002-2017
What to make of all this? The growing number of persons involved in production agriculture is definitely a positive. It would be akin to a sector adding jobs. The growth appears to be fueled by part-time producers involved in larger conventional operations or extremely small operations perhaps growing produce for sale in farmers’ markets or other local food venues or grazing a few head of cattle. Finally, the trends will likely continue. The growing 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 within the U.S. for locally produced food will drive the need for producers to meet this demand as well.