Business & economy, Special Reports

Census details local farm consolidation, drop in onion, sugar beet acreage

VALE – The number of farms in Malheur County has declined as producers consolidate into larger operations or move into Idaho in the past five years while acreage planted in two core crops has also dropped.

The shift in local agriculture is reflected in the recently released census results from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The census measured nine key agriculture benchmarks in the county in what officials describe as a snapshot.

The census compares 2022 figures to 2017 for everything to the average size of a farm to the amount of federal support payments.

In Malheur County, the number of farms dropped by over 100 – from 964 in 2017 to 861 in 2022. Meanwhile, the cropland acreage dropped by 27,826 acres to 146,174 acres.

The average market value of products sold per farm rose by nearly $227,000 over the last five years. 

The acreage for two key Malheur County crops—onions and sugar beets—declined. Onions dropped by nearly 3,500 acres, and sugar beets by 920 acres.

The inventory of beef cows declined by nearly 20,000 but the number of cattle and calves sold over five years jumped by nearly 50,000.  

The census collects data from farmers every five years and is primarily focused on identifying who is farming, including their age, sex, ethnicity and the size and type of operation.

Dave Losh, a statistician with the National Agriculture Statistics Service, said over 700 questionnaires were sent to producers in Malheur County, but the agency does not have the percentage of how many were turned in. Nonetheless, he said the response rate in the county was “in the middle of the pack” compared to others. 

The census is critical as it is used by the federal government to measure the amount of subsidies – including loans – issued each year to farmers.

The agriculture industry is the biggest economic engine in the county and generated more than $500 million in products sold – crops and cattle – in 2022.

The agriculture industry is divided between cattle and crops. Livestock, poultry and other related products made up 60% of agricultural sales in Malheur County, while row crops made up the rest.

The census showed the livestock industry has gained traction in terms of profits as sales between 2017 and 2022 increased by $120,000.

The survey also revealed the amount of acreage devoted to sugar beets and onions dropped over a five-year period.

The amount of acreage devoted to sugar beets in the county dropped from 8,159 in 2017 to 7,239 in 2022.

Onion acres – and the number of producers – also plummeted, according to the census.

The census showed 13,480 acres of dry onions were harvested in 2017. In 2022, 10,030 acres of dry onions were harvested, a decline of 3,450 acres.

 The number of onions farms declined from 73 to 45.

Meanwhile, in Idaho, sugar beet and onion acreage jumped by nearly 4,000 acres, said Losh.

Several factors may have influenced the increase in acres in Idaho, said Losh. He said after the epic 2017 snowstorms rolled over the valley and destroyed warehouses and packing sheds some growers elected to rebuild in Idaho for its economic benefits.

Many producers in the census also cited the increasing cost of doing business in Oregon, from a higher minimum wage to higher energy costs as a reason they shifted their operations to Idaho.

But costs in other areas also play a role. While the potential benefit of onion production is high, the front-end costs for the crop are also high.

“The higher the risk, the higher of potential rewards and the high potential for loss,” said Bruce Corn, Malheur County onion farmer.

Some farmers have switched to other crops with less risk, he said.

“The ever-increasing costs to raise onions, some people have paused more than they have in the past. People tend to go to those less higher production crops because of the stability of the crop,” he said.

The census statistics confirm Corn’s appraisal.

Between 2017 and 2022, farmers added 3,000 acres of wheat.

“Wheat and corn markets have both been fairly good and there is a lot less production and a lot less costs,” he said.

He said, in general, the aging population of farmers may play a role in the drop in onion acres.

“As you get older you tend to not think about the higher risk with onions,” he said.

The decline in the total number of farms can be traced to a slow, but steady, process of consolidation.

Corey Maag, a Vale onion and sugar beet producer with Jamieson Produce, said the decrease in farms is a reality across the nation.
“Less young people are wanting to get into the business due to the risk and work ethic it takes to be successful. Farms are getting bigger because an operation’s fixed costs need to be allocated over more acres,” he said.

Grant Kitamura, the general manager and part owner of the onion packing firm Baker & Murakam Produce Co., said farms now must be bigger to compete on the world agriculture stage.

“You can’t be out there and buy a quarter of a million dollar harvester and harvest 50 acres. You have to cover some ground,” he said.

Stuart Reitz, director of Oregon State University’s Malheur Experiment Station, said he knows some farms have gone out of business.

“Somebody retires and their neighbor will pick up the acreage, or, more typically, they will rent the land,” said Reitz.

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