By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Small farms and farming are on the rise in Rhode Island and across New England, while the practice is down across the country, according to a new federal report. The recently released five-year Census of Agriculture from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows Rhode Island adding 24 farms between 2007 and 2012, an increase of 2 percent. New England had an increase of 5 percent. Across the country, the number of farms are down 4 percent since the last census.
Small farms, those 9 acres or less, accounted for the greatest growth in Rhode Island; 35 percent of all Rhode Island farms are designated as small, third most in the country. Rhode Island ranked second nationally with its percent of new farmers, at 30.8 percent.
Ken Ayars, chief of agriculture for the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), said the report shows a trend in the state from fewer nurseries, turf and flower farming to more fruit, vegetable, livestock and aquaculture farming.
Ayars isn't certain yet if the shift is due to an economic slowdown or greater food production and the local movement that led to a 20 percent contraction in the nursery, turf and flower farms and a 20 percent increase in food agriculture. The two groups each represent about half of all faming in the state. Ayars said farming in Rhode Island is diversified and more balanced since the last census.
“This high percentage of new and/or beginning farmers in Rhode Island shows to me a level of confidence and recruitment, certain economic factors at play, lifestyle decisions and perhaps influence of growth in urban agriculture,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Rhode Island has 1,243 farms; 71 percent are less than 10 acres. Ocean State farmland increased 3 percent, to 69,589 acres since the last census.
Farmland includes cropland, pastures, woodland, and other land that can include streams, ponds and wetlands. It also includes coastal areas used for producing shellfish and farm-raised fish.
The average age of a farmer in Rhode Island increased slightly to 56.7 years. Women-owned farms increased from 24 percent to 25 percent. Total market value of sales declined 9 percent from 2007. Crop sales declined 12 percent, and livestock sales increased 4 percent.
The USDA releases a full report with greater analysis in May.