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Ag Census puts numbers to trends we see

The USDA’s agriculture census released this month quantified some trends we’ve been seeing for a few years.

The Washington Post had a good analysis story on it, complete with some excellent charts, but it allowed its political biases to creep in and miss the real story.

The Census of Agriculture comes out every 5 years, and in mid-April, the USDA released the version that covers 2012-2017. It is a huge package of data, tables and charts.

No doubt many times more consumers saw the Post article than the USDA release. The Post noted that vegetable growers are moving away from sweet corn, green beans, peas and potatoes and planting more sweet potatoes and leafy greens.

“Cultivation of sweet potatoes increased by 47,257 acres or 37.6 percent from 2012 to 2017, by far the biggest jump of any vegetable crop. It’s more than the next two fastest-growing crops, romaine lettuce (up 22,780 acres) and spinach (up 23,592 acres), combined,” the story said.

The story does a pretty good job or explaining how consumer demand, led by diets that embrace sweet potatoes and leafy greens, have led growers to meet that demand with higher volumes.

However, it does a poor job of explaining some of the items losing share.

For example, it said sweet corn is the second most planted crop, but it lost 75,000 acres during the last five years.

One of the main reasons?

A Florida sweet corn grower said Walmart is “putting family farms out of business, not just by playing hardball on prices but also by demanding year-round contracts. If a family farmer wants a contract with a big supplier but doesn’t produce corn all year long, they’re responsible for buying another producer’s corn to cover the grocery behemoth’s supply chain during their offseason.”

This is simply Walmart bashing with little basis in reality. The grocery giant doesn’t control a high enough percentage of the U.S. retail food market to dictate such a trend, and sweet corn growers have had plenty of success working with regional retailers on seasonal, local crops.

Last year saw some over-supply and lower demand, as one grower noted as this season gets started.

Also, sweet corn may see a resurgence as elote continues to gain popularity.  (elote)

The Post story also said white potatoes are losing at the expense of sweet potatoes, but potato acreage has been fairly steady for 15 years. 

White potatoes are falling out of favor with some retailers, but they’re promoting red, yellow and russet more than five years ago. 

The Washington Post story is worth a look if you don’t have time to dig into the data.


Greg Johnson is the Director of Media Development for Blue Book Services.