Editorial: Ag census should spur Indiana lawmakers to create water plan

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The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette

With residents numbering an estimated 271,493, Allen County is home to Indiana’s second-most populous city, Fort Wayne. But did you know Allen, the largest Hoosier county geographically, also figures among the state’s five counties with the most farms?

According to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Allen County’s 1,497 farms generated $310.5 million in sales in 2022, accounting for about 2% of Indiana’s total agricultural income.

At $18 billion in farm sales, Indiana remains a top agricultural producer, ranking ninth among the states. State farmers also reported a record number of cover crops in 2022 to help absorb nutrients and reduce soil runoff, but more conservation will be needed in the future to help feed the world’s growing population, now at 7.9 billion.

“This data shows that agriculture remains a pillar of the Indiana economy with the total value of agriculture production growing 62% over a five-year period,” said Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, secretary of agriculture and rural development. “The Census of Agriculture is all-encompassing, and it allows us to compare ourselves to fellow states, whether that is in ranking of commodities, prices, demographics and more.”

The Census of Agriculture, taken once every five years, is a complete count of U.S. farms and the people who run them. Even small plots, whether rural or urban, growing fruit, vegetables or food animals, count if $1,000 or more of the products were raised or sold during the census year.

Patrick Graham, whose family has been farming in Wells County since 1873, participated in the 2022 agricultural census. The Grahams received the Hoosier Homestead Sesquicentennial Award in 2023 for keeping the farm in operation for at least 150 years.

Graham grows corn and soybeans on 145 acres, Indiana’s top two commodities in both acreage and exports. In total, Hoosier farms grew about 5.7 million acres of soybeans and 5.4 million acres of corn.

But there’s more to Indiana agriculture than its two most visible products. According to the agricultural census, the Hoosier State is the nation’s No. 1 producer of popcorn, gourds and duck; second for pumpkins; third for spearmint and turkeys; fourth for peppermint and soybeans; fifth for corn and hogs; sixth for eggs and watermelons; and 10th for maple syrup and hemp.

“We are thankful for all the farmers who completed the survey,” said Indiana Department of Agriculture Director Don Lamb. “This data allows our department to provide accurate and reliable information and data to Hoosiers, to farmers and to decision-makers.”

Data from the census shapes programs and initiatives that benefit farmers, according to the state agriculture department. The findings of the agricultural census should be used to assist Indiana lawmakers and officials in creating and implementing a sorely needed statewide water conservation strategy.

Indiana has 25,000 miles of polluted rivers and streams, the most of any state, a 2022 report by the Environmental Integrity Project found. To reduce nitrogen and phosphorus from running off farm fields and into waterways, Hoosier farmers planted a record amount of cover crops on 1.6 million acres in 2022.

In Indiana, 36% of farms are left untilled over the winter, and 25% used “reduced tillage” techniques to reduce runoff. Still, just 8% of farms used cover crops in the fall and winter, which keep nutrients in the ground and heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the air.

Leading the nation in the most miles of polluted waterways, despite progress in cover-crop plantings and tillage reductions, should motivate state lawmakers to explore more ways to incentivize their use on Indiana’s 53,599 farms.