MILWAUKEE (AP) – Wisconsin farmers stopped working hundreds of thousands of acres during five years of heavy farm closures that a federal report described Thursday as among the most significant in the nation.
The state lost 8,700 farms and more than 620,000 acres of farmland from 2007 to 2012, according to the Census of Agriculture, which is conducted every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The United States has been losing farms for decades and some loss in Wisconsin could be expected, particularly since many dairy farmers were hard hit in 2009 by a combination of high feed and low milk prices. But the state’s 11 percent decrease in the number of farms surpassed the national average of 4.3 percent.
And while farm acreage remained fairly stable nationwide, Wisconsin’s decreased 4 percent to less than 14.6 million acres. Only Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Missouri – had comparable losses.
The silver lining: Wisconsin remained among the top 10 states in number of farms and agricultural sales; its 69,756 farms produced products worth more than $11.7 billion in 2012. Last year was even more profitable, with farmers earning an estimated $3.75 billion, according to a report released last month by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and UW-Extension.
Ben Brancel, secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said his department had not had time to figure out what might be behind the above-average loss in farms.
“We may not get a true picture of why the number of farms is down until USDA releases the final numbers that will include a county by county breakdown. Knowing where it is happening may tell us more about why,” Brancel said in a statement.
Agricultural economist Bruce Jones, who helped produce the UW report, said he was “a little bit surprised” by the loss of farmland because recent annual reports have consistently pegged the amount at about 8 million acres.
Other reports on land sales have shown a decrease in acres leaving farming.
Jones said that led him to believe the loss in farmland was largely in pastures, woodland and property less suited to agriculture. In some cases, he said, farmers could be selling marginal land to raise money to buy more expensive and valuable cropland.
Jones said he was not concerned about the decrease in farm numbers because, except for 2009, farm income in Wisconsin has been strong for the past five years.
He said most of the farms going out of business seemed to be smaller, but that didn’t mean they weren’t doing well.
“These exists of these smaller farms are not, in most cases, foreclosures or forced exits. I’m thinking that the people had just decided to get out,” he said, adding, “I think they’re retiring or they’re maybe deciding they just don’t want to be in the business of farming.”
Farmers have been aging like the U.S. population as whole. Wisconsin farmers’ average age was 56 in 2012, compared to 55 in 2007.