Historic Data Backs Up Changes in Farming

9/21/2013 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

Agricultural census data dating back nearly 80 years puts numbers to the changing face of farming in the mid-Atlantic over that same period.

The growth of the broiler industry through the 1990s is the most dramatic regional trend shown in the data, which is available on the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service website.

The data also show a steady decline in harvested acreage of wheat and corn for grain over the past 80 years, even as yields for both crops have increased dramatically. The historical census records were posted online in July.

“U.S. agriculture continues to progress by learning from our past, which is why it is imperative to have historic data easily available,” said NASS Administrator Cynthia Clark in a news release issued when the historic census data were published online. “Whether you need them for research or are just curious about our country’s farming history, these historic volumes are a valuable addition to the official statistical literature available to the public.”

Since World War II, the broiler industry in the mid-Atlantic has grown rapidly with consumer demand. In 2012, Maryland raised 304 million broilers, more than 10 times the 28 million raised in 1945. By the early 1960s, Maryland’s production had topped 100 million, and by the early 1980s, it was well past 200 million.

Virginia’s and West Virginia’s broiler industries have also increased 10-fold since 1945; their 2012 production stands at 240.5 million and 94 million, respectively. Delaware’s broiler industry has grown at a slower rate, from 73 million in 1945 to 212 million in 2012. Delaware is also the only state in the region where broiler production has peaked and decreased over a several-decade period. Its broiler production in 1992 was 246.2 million — nearly 30 million head more than in 2012.

Harvested acreage of wheat for grain in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia in 1936 totaled about 1.27 million acres. By 2007, that total had fallen to around 428,000 acres. The largest decrease was in West Virginia, where 178,000 acres of wheat were harvested for grain in 1936 compared to less than 6,000 acres in 2007. In each of those four states, typical yields per acre were around 15 bushels per acre in 1936. By 2007, wheat fields in the mid-Atlantic states were yielding about four times that much — around or more than 60 bushels per acre.

Acreage of harvested corn for grain in those four mid-Atlantic states totaled 1.07 million acres in 2007 — well below the 2.56 million acres of corn harvested for grain in 1936. At the same time, corn yields have roughly quadrupled in the last 80 years, from 25 to 30 bushels per acre in the 1930s to consistently over 100 bushels per acre today.

Allowing for single-year variations related to growing conditions, wheat and corn yields have increased steadily. By the 1970s, corn yields in the region were consistently around 80 bushels per acre, and began regularly hitting 100 bushels per acre in the 1980s.

Cattle inventory in the mid-Atlantic is slightly higher today — 2.19 million head — compared to 1936 —1.85 million head — although trends have varied from state to state. All the growth in the region’s cattle herd has come in Virginia, where total head of cattle increased from 870,000 to 1.57 million over that period. In the early 1980s, however, the state’s cattle herd was even larger, approaching 2 million head.

Cattle numbers have fallen slightly in West Virginia, from 618,000 in 1936 to 411,000 in 2007. The total herd size in that state was also larger in the early 1980s than it is today. In Maryland, cattle numbers reached their peak in the 1950s at just over 500,000 head, but fell to less than 191,000 by 2007. Delaware experienced similar growth from the 1930s to 1950s, followed by a decline to just 21,000 head in 2007.

To access the recently digitized historic agriculture census data, visit http://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Ag_Statistics/index.asp

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