Farm numbers continue to decline in Alabama and across the nation, according to preliminary data from the 2002 Census of Agriculture. The total number of farms in Alabama dropped about 10 percent from 49,872 to 45,112, according to an economist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

“More interesting is that 43 percent of those farms generate less than $2,500 in annual sales,” says Bob Goodman. “Thirty or 40 years ago, we had a lot of subsistence-type farms with very low revenues. They have been replaced with hobby farmers who enjoy the benefits of rural life. For them, farming at best is a sideline enterprise and at the least a preferred lifestyle.”

The census defines a farm as an enterprise that generates at least $1,000 in sales or other revenues.

Goodman also says preliminary census data highlighted the growth of large farms in Alabama.

“In 1974, there were just over 100 Alabama farms that generated more than a half million dollars in sales,” he says. “In the most recent census, that number has climbed to almost 2,000. That means that somewhere less than 5 percent of the state's farms account for 70 to 80 percent of the farm revenue in Alabama.

“These are family farms, but they are 1,000 acre or larger farms with probably some type of partner or corporate structure. In the future, however, there's no way for the trend in increased acreage to continue. You can't just keep getting bigger with the same decreasing profit margins. There are not going to be many 10,000 acres farms because of the state's topography and climate.”

Data also showed that almost a third of all farm operators worked 200 or more days away from the farm.

“Some folks don't want to leave the life they grew up with,” says Goodman. “But at the same time, they cannot earn the income they need or desire to support their families. Some work off the farm in order to secure affordable health insurance and other benefits.”

The census also shows that Alabama farmers continue to age. The average age for the Alabama farmers is 56.6 years old, more than a year greater than the average national age.

The growing Hispanic population in Alabama is apparent in the almost 50 percent increase of Hispanics who are principal operators of a farm. That mirrors the national trend as principal operators of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino origin increased by 50.8 percent from 1997 to 2002.

Goodman points out that in spite of this growth, Hispanics and Latinos comprise only a small percentage of Alabama's principal operators with only about 450 in the state.

Nationally, black principal operators increased by 8.8 percent and American Indian principal operators increased by 19.4 percent from 1997 to 2002. In Alabama, the increases were almost 5 percent and 24 percent respectively.

Final 2002 Census of Agriculture data at the national, state and county levels will be released June 3. That report will provide first-time facts about organic crop acreage and sales; production contracts; farm computer and Internet use, plus the broader, full range of traditional census data including land use and ownership; acres irrigated; crop acreage and quantities harvested; livestock and poultry inventories; value of products sold; value of production contracts; participation in federal farm programs; and market value of land and buildings.

The Census of Agriculture is currently conducted every five years. The first was conducted in conjunction with the 1840 population census. The census' objective is to collect information about every farm and ranch in the United States. The 2002 Census of Agriculture had an 88 percent overall response rate.