Value of Montana agricultural products increases

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The total value of Montana agricultural products sold shot up more than 50 percent over a five-year period even as the number of farms declined, according to preliminary data from a U.S. government agriculture census released Thursday.

The 2012 census is a reflection of several good years of production, high prices and increased crop diversification, said Montana Department of Agriculture Director Ron de Yong.

"We've been working hard to diversify agriculture," de Yong said. "We are not only surviving, but prospering."

The value of Montana products went from $2.8 billion in 2007 to $4.2 billion in 2012, according to the census. That is more than a 50 percent increase, while the average market value per farm rose 59 percent to $151,035.

But the census' numbers don't reflect the increase in the price of inputs such as fertilizer, fuels and rent, de Yong said. Crop prices also have fallen since 2012, meaning the near-term outlook is less rosy, he said.

"It's part of the cycle, and we should cycle back up again," he said. "I think long term, agriculture is a very promising industry."

The number of farms in the state dropped from 29,524 in 2007 to 28,008 in 2012, according to the census. De Young said those numbers have fluctuated for decades, and the 2012 total is still higher than 1997, when there were a little more than 27,600 farms.

The average age of a Montana farmer went from 57.8 to 58.9, reflecting a national trend of an aging farming population that U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called a concern.

However, there were 91 more Montana farmers under the age of 35 in 2012 than five years earlier, and the number of farms under 50 acres also increased by 504.

De Yong said more young farmers are starting small farms as part of the local food movement, while others were encouraged by the high crop prices to take over their parents' operations.

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