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Three takeaways for Ohio from the latest agriculture census

A red barn sits on a grassy hill. The sky is blue.
The latest Census of Agriculture found Ohio lost more than 300,000 acres of farmland between 2017 and 2022.

Ohio is losing farmland.

Between 2017 and 2022, the state lost more than 300,000 acres, according to the latest Census of Agriculture.

The data, released last month, offers a glimpse into the state of agriculture across the country. Every five years, the Department of Agriculture counts the nation’s farms and farmers, documents what plants they’re growing and animals they’re raising, and tracks how much money they’re making.

This census found more and more farms are going out of business, as farmland disappears to development and smaller operations get absorbed by larger ones.

“This survey is a wake-up call,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack when the data was released.

“I’m concerned about the state of agriculture and food production in this country.”

Here’s what the farm data says about Ohio:

1. Ohio lost a lot of farmland

Two decades ago, Ohio had more than 14.5 million acres of farmland. Since then, it’s lost nearly a million acres — about a third of those acres between 2017 and 2022.

“That is an enormous number,” said Ohio Farm Bureau spokesperson Ty Higgins.

He says much of that land is being developed.

“When you talk about urban sprawls in other states, it might be a capital city and maybe an outlier,” he said. But Ohio is full of middle metropolitan areas too — places like Dayton, Akron, Youngstown and Toledo.

“When you talk about urban sprawl in Ohio, it's not just in one or two parts of the state,” he said. “It's all over the state.”

And while he recognizes the economic importance of this development, he worries it will come at a cost to farmers, and therefore food production.

“We need food on our table three times, or in my case, maybe more a day. And we need Ohio farms and Ohio farmers to do that,” he said. “So we need to look at ways to balance that economic growth with land use and make sure that agriculture has a seat at the table.”

2. Farms in Ohio, and nationwide, are consolidating

As the amount of farmland in Ohio decreases, so does the number of farms. There are about 1,800 fewer farms now than there were in 2017.

Mid-size farms, which have between 140 and 1,000 acres, took an especially big hit.

“The farm economy that we've had over the last several years has not been conducive for that,” Higgins said.

"When you look at losing farms, you look at losing food production and our food supply. The system gets interrupted every single acre that disappears."

Ty Higgins, Ohio Farm Bureau

He says the cost of farm inputs, like fuel, labor and machinery, are really high right now. But crop prices have remained low.

“When those factors come into play, those farmers with not a lot of land and not a lot of capital can't do very much more than what they're able to do. And sometimes that's not enough,” Higgins said. “And that's unfortunate.”

But as the number of mid-size farms drops, the number of large farms is growing. In five years, Ohio gained almost 150 additional farms that have more than 2,000 acres.

This consolidation is the nature of agriculture right now, Higgins said.

“It’s just the way of the world,” he said. “The bigger, more successful organizations and operations get bigger and they gobble up whatever's out there for the taking.”

Across the country, farm size increased by about 5%, despite a 2% decrease in the amount of total farmland.

3. There are more young, new and beginning farmers

Ohio gained large farms, but it also gained small farms, with less than 100 acres.

That speaks to another trend in Ohio agriculture: an increase in the number of young, new and beginning farmers.

Between 2017 and 2022, Ohio gained about 5,000 new and beginning producers, and just over 900 farmers younger than 35.

Higgins says these additions are important, and the agriculture industry needs more of them.

“The age of the farmer in Ohio, on average, is still about 58 years old,” he said. That number continues to skew higher, because we don't have enough young people involved in this industry.”

“We’re trying to get as many people to understand that they can be a part of agriculture, and it's more than just getting your fingernails dirty. We need all hands on deck in order to remain successful for generations to come.”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.