Numbers can be fascinating in the stories they tell. While page after page of tables and charts may seem uninteresting and dry upon first glance, the people and places behind those numbers can tell us a lot about where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Take for instance the demographics study gleaned from the 2002 Census of Agriculture. For those farmers out there who don’t know it already, you’re getting older. The good news, however, is that there are more of you than we had first believed.

First, let’s look at the matter of age. You really didn’t need a 15-page study to tell you that you’re getting older, but there it is, in black and white. The study shows that the average age of all U.S. principal farm operators in the 2002 Census of Agriculture was 55.3 years.

The study reminds us that this average has been more than 50 years of age since at least the 1974 Census of Agriculture, and it has increased in each census since 1978 — usually by one year or more from one census to the next. In addition, the percentage of principal farm operators 65 or older has risen consistently since 1978. At that time, about one is six farmers was 65 or older. Now, it’s 26 percent or more than one in four.

At the other end of the spectrum, the percentage of principal farm operators with average ages of less than 35 years has been declining since 1982, when it was 15.9 percent. The last census shows that only 5.8 percent of operators are now younger than 35 years. Principal operators who are 34 years or younger has dropped by about 20 percent in each subsequent census since 1982.

Breaking it down by state, we find that the youngest farmers, on average, can be found in Minnesota, at 52.9 years old. The oldest farmers, on average, are in Mississippi, at 57.2 years old.

One factor that appears to influence average age by state is climate, according to the study. The 13 states with average ages of 54.1 year of age or less — 1.2 years under the national average — are Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming — all cool or colder climates.

The nine states with average ages of 56.5 years of age or more, which is 1.2 years more than the national average, are Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia — all in warmer parts of the country.

Another way of evaluating age relationships is to examine average age by value of sales, and the demographics study showed definite age/income class patterns. The average ages of principal farm operators in all market value of sales categories above $50,000 were below the national average for all farm operations, with the lowest average of 51.5 years occurring for operations with sales between $500,000 and $1 million.

One of the more striking bits of data from the 2002 Census of Agriculture is that the National Agricultural Statistics Service estimated the number of U.S. farmers for the first time. Past censuses had collected only “principal” operator information, even in cases such as partnerships where shared responsibilities obviously existed. That led to the common misstatement — and you’ve all heard it — that the United States has only two million farmers. A more accurate statement would be that we have two million farms.

The latest farm census asked how many individuals on each operation qualified as farm operators, and how many were women. Some 62 percent of all farms reported only one operator. However, a total of 3,115,172 operators were identified on the 2,128,982 farms.

It’s also interesting to note that the number of women principal operators increased by 13.4 percent from the 1997 Census of Agriculture, in line with the double-digit increases in all recent censuses of agriculture. Women operators make up 11.2 percent of principal operators but 27.2 percent of all operators. The average age of women principal operators declined from 57.2 years in 1997 to 56.7 years in 2002. The average ages of women second and third operators in 2002 were 50.3 and 45.2 years, respectively.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com