New numbers show the state lost more than 2,000 farms over five years, the largest drop in more than two decades.

The latest census data for New York agriculture shows a 6 percent drop in the number of farms statewide. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just released its 2017 census released every five years.

“The most startling statistic is we now have 33,438 farms in the state, about 2,100 fewer farms than 2012,” stated New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher. “This is the largest drop in more than two decades and is triple the national average of a three-percent loss.”

Ontario County lost 20 farms — a drop from 853 in 2012, to 833 in 2017 — putting its loss of 2.3 percent slightly below the national average.

“While there is still much more to learn as we evaluate the mountain of data, it is clear that the depressed farm economy has taken a toll on the overall number of farms in New York, as labor costs continue to mount for our family farms,” added Fisher. “At the same time, there are still opportunities across the board. Agriculture remains a leading driver of our rural economy and the data shows we must continue to invest in the farming community while also finding ways to improve the business climate…”

The losses run the gamut, including a 9-percent drop in both the smallest and largest farms in terms of value of sales. New York also saw a nearly 20-percent decline in the number of dairy farms in the state. These losses coincide with 9-percent increase in labor costs, while some other production costs, like feed, gasoline and chemicals, declined. The average net farm income of $42,875 per farm is slightly below the national average.

USDA surveys farmers every five years and then takes more than a year to compile the data. In Ontario County, the loss of 20 farms coincided with an increase in acres farmed. The county added 7,473 acres of farmland over the five years, from 192,616 acres to 200,089 acres.

There was a slight uptick in the smallest farms of less than 10 acres, which increased from 71 to 77. The biggest jump in large farms fit in the range of 500 acres to 999 acres. Those operations increased by 10, from 46 to 56 over the five year period. Countywide total crop sales dropped by nearly $14 million. Forty-five fewer farms operated with hired labor and the cost of hired farm labor increased from $24.5 million to $30.4 million — a jump of 24 percent.

Last week, New York Farm Bureau members spoke out at a press conference at a farm in Genesee County against the proposed “Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act” (S. 2837/A. 2750). The legislation would guarantee farm laborers the same rights as workers in other industries including the right to collective bargaining and the ability to unionize, along with receiving overtime pay and at least one day off each week.

Farm Bureau opposes the legislation, saying the increased cost to farm owners would devastate the industry. FarmCredit East estimates such a change in the law would increase labor costs, on average, by 17-percent or nearly $300 million statewide.

“New York’s labor costs are already among the highest in the country, and this increase will it make more difficult to compete to sell food and farm products,” stated Fisher.

“Other states and nearby Canada have lower wage rates and fewer labor regulations, thereby allowing them to offer their goods at cheaper prices. New York producers just can’t increase their prices to recoup the increased labor costs and expect to stay in the market.”

A round table discussion at Genesee Community College with several key lawmakers focused on the farm labor bill. Farm Bureau urges farm owners and farm workers to sign up to testify at Senate hearings on the bill taking place April 25 at SUNY Morrisville, April 26 on Long Island, and May 2 at SUNY Sullivan.

“We as a family, treat our employees as family. We can’t do this without them. When a person enjoys working for you, they do a better job,” said Dale Stein, a dairy farmer who hosted the press conference on his farm, Stein Farms. He also spoke of the challenges of the farm economy and how overtime would dramatically increase labor costs on his farm. “It doesn’t matter how much you want to do something, if you can’t pay for it. This could be the single, most devastating thing to happen to agriculture in this state.”

By the numbers

98 percent
Family-owned farms statewide

2,100
Number of farms lost over five years

205 acres
Average farm size

55.8
Average age of farmer

The U.S. Department of Agriculture 2017 census for New York state agriculture