Let’s be honest: Most Upper Midwest farmers and ranchers didn’t pay much attention when the 2017 Census of Agriculture was released this spring. And that’s understandable. Producers were focused on calving, lambing, planting and preparation for planting.

And many area agriculturalists aren’t all that interested now, either. They’re haying, spraying their crops and, in some cases, recharging physically and emotionally after an unusually long and grueling planting season.

All that aside, the census is important in many ways. Conducted every five years by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, or NASS, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the densus is the best, most comprehensive source of information about U.S. agriculture.

It affects federal and state regulations. It has an impact on the U.S farm bill, the centerpiece of U.S. food and ag policy. It influences ag research spending and the decisions of ag retailers and commodity groups. And it can provide farmers, ranchers, ag bankers, agronomists and others with insight that helps them operate more efficiently.

And let’s be honest about this, too. The 2017 census — conducted in 2017 and prepared in 2018 and early 2019 before being released this spring — can seem complicated and even a little intimidating. The 2017 version has 6.4 million pieces of new information, according to USDA.

But the online version of the census has a number of screening tools, including ones for individual states, that simplify the process.

NASS sent questionnaires to nearly 3 million potential U.S. farms and ranches. Take the results with a touch of skepticism. Any farm with at least $1,000 in annual sales, or the potential for $1,000 in annual sales, was included in the census — and such a low threshold may not provide the best representation of U.S. ag overall.

Even so, the census found that the 273,000 smallest (1-9 acres) farms make up 0.1% of all farmland while the 85,127 largest (2,000 or more acres) farms make up 58% of farmland.

Many key findings of the 2017 census won’t surprise anyone familiar with production agriculture. Highlights include:

  • There are 2.04 million farms and ranches (down 3.2%), with an average size of 441 acres (up 1.6%). That confirms the widespread perception that farms on balance are getting bigger and fewer.

  • 96% of farms and ranches are family-owned. Many in U.S. agriculture are frustrated by what they see as the false assumption in the general public that ag is dominated by big, non-family corporations.

  • A total of 43.6% of farms had positive net cash farm income in 2017. That reinforces the belief in ag that many U.S. farmers are struggling financially.

  • Women’s always-large role in farming continues to grow. Women now make up 36% of all farmers, and most are involved in daily decisions, record-keeping and financial management.

At least one of the key census findings may surprise some: The average age of all U.S. ag producers is 57.5, up 1.2 years from 2012.

A number of young farmers entered the profession during the ag boom of 2008-2012, as well as the years immediately after the boom, and it was thought by some that would turn back the long trend of rising farmer average age. But the 2017 census shows that wasn't the case.

Still, the census found farms with young producers making decisions tend to be larger than average in both acres and sales, an indication that the role of young farmers is growing. There are 321,261 young producers age 35 or less on 240,141 farms.

The census offers information on a wide range of topics, and different farm organizations emphasize different aspects of it. For example, the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb., was pleased that farmers increasingly are adopting renewable energy on their farms.

The census found that in 2017 there were 133,176 farms producing renewable energy, more than double the number in 2012, and that the number of farms with solar energy production rose 60% to 90,142 from 2012, the Center for Rural Affairs noted.

And the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition noted that organic production rose 27% in 2012-17, with a 39% increase in the number of farms certified as organic. The organization also applauded an increase in local food sales, with more than 6% of farms selling directly to consumers.

Here’s a sampling of the many things covered in the 2017 census, with emphasis on Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Farmer age, farm size

Montana has both the oldest farmers, on average, as well as the largest average farm size: 58.2 years and 2,149 acres

Minnesota farmers on average are 56.5 years old. The average size of farms in the state is 371 acres.

South Dakota farmers average 56.2 years old. Farms in the state average 1,443 acres.

North Dakota farmers on average were the youngest in the four states, at 56 years. Average farm size was 1,492 acres.

Conservation

The new census has considerable information on conservation practices, including no-till acres and cover crops exclusive of the Conservation Reserve Program.

In Minnesota, there are 1.1 million acres of no-till and 579,000 acres of cover crops not in CRP.

In South Dakota, there are 7.6 million acres of no-till and 281,649 acres of cover crops not in CRP.

North Dakota has 7.78 million acres of no-till and 404,267 acres of cover crops not in CRP.

Montana has 8 million acres of no-till and 151,500 acres of cover crops not in CRP.

The census found that cover-crop acres nationwide shot up 50% from 2012 to 2017, reaching 15.4 million acres.

Tiled acres, berries

South Dakota has 658,000 tile-drained acres and 136 acres of berries.

North Dakota has 285,153 tile-drained acres and 133 acres of berries.

Montana has 18,000 tile-drained acres and 59 acres of berries.

Minnesota, not surprisingly to anyone familiar with agriculture in the four states, leads the way in both tile-drained acres and berry acres: 8.1 million of tiled acres and 1,253 acres of berries.

While tracking the number of berry acres may not be relevant to most mainstream ag producers, the specialized information reflects the breadth of data found in the new census — and obviously is important to people involved in the berry business.