Small-scale agriculture is alive and well in Vermont, despite a national trend that shows farmland being consolidated into fewer, bigger operations.
That's according to preliminary results from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Both Vermont's numbers and nationwide averages show definitive growth: Vermont's farm economy is worth $770 million, up 15 percent from five years ago. Nationwide, there's been a 30 percent increase in value.
But the nature of that growth looks different in the Green Mountain State.
The average size of Vermont farms is shrinking (90 acres in 2007; 80 acres in 2012), while nationally farm size is growing (average of 418 acres in 2007; 434 in 2012). Vermont also has almost 20,000 more acres in farmland than it did in 2007, while farmland across the country has declined by nearly 7.5 million acres.
"Our farms are evolving with the changing market, with more farmers producing the high quality products that Vermont is known for," Gov. Peter Shumlin said in a statement. "This census indicates our farm economy is solid and our working lands are increasing in size. We will use this information to continue to support our farmers and all the community businesses that depend upon a healthy agricultural industry."
The census shows that the majority of Vermont's new farms – there are 354 of them – are between 10 and 50 acres. Meanwhile, the national numbers show a different growth trend; farms bigger than 1,000 acres are the only ones increasing.
"These trends are good news for Vermont," Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch said in a joint statement. "The rise in the number of farms and the increasing value of our agricultural products is a credit to Vermont farmers' pioneering work in the local and sustainable food movement."
Chuck Ross, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, also reacted positively to the preliminary data.
"These findings paint a positive picture of Vermont's community-based system of agriculture," Ross said. "This is a great story for our state – more acreage in agriculture, more farms overall, an increase in the overall value of our agricultural products – this is how we can ensure our working landscape will thrive for generations to come."
Officials also noted increasing diversity in the agricultural community, with the number of female principal operators up 12 percent, and a slight increase in the number of minority-operated farms and a 22 percent increase in the number of farmers between the ages of 25 and 34.
"I am ... very encouraged to see new perspectives in agriculture," Ross said. "More women, young people, and diversity add to the fabric of Vermont farming. This is great news for Vermont."
The farming population is aging, though: In 2007, the the average age of a Vermont farmer was 56.5. Today, it's 57.3.
This post was updated on Feb. 21 at 12 p.m. to include statements from lawmakers and state officials.