Government and private reports this week revealed harsh winter weather is cooling the housing sector.
According to the National Association of Realtors, sales of existing homes fell in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.6 million units. That’s down 5 percent from December and the worst tally in 18 months.
Rising home values are contributing to the slump. The median sales price has risen over 10 percent in the past year to $189,000.
Meanwhile, the Commerce Department reports, U.S. builders started work on new homes at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 880,000 in January… down 16 percent from the previous month.
Applications for building permits -- a barometer of future construction plans – also fell in January, marking their third month of decline.
And the Builder Sentiment Index declined 10 points last month to 46. Any reading below 50 indicates builders believe conditions are more negative than positive, and January’s tally was the lowest in 8 months.
Rural America, of course, is not immune to the market forces at play in the rest of the economy. Last week the Agriculture Department predicted net farm income will decline significantly in 2014, and this week the government reported demographics are shifting in the heartland.
Conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service since 1840, the Census of Agriculture is a complete count of U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them. According to the Census, a farm is “any place from which $1,000 of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the year.
Here are some preliminary findings.
In 2012, the United States had 2.1 million farms, down 4.3 percent from the last agricultural Census in 2007. This continues a long-term trend of fewer farms.
Between 2007 and 2012, the amount of land in farms fell from 922 million acres to 915 million acres. But, the subtraction of less than one percent was the third-smallest decline reflected in the Census since 1950.
In 2012, the average farm size was 434 acres. That’s 3.8 percent larger than 2007, when the average farm was 418 acres. The number of mid-sized farms also declined in number between 2007 and 2012. And the number of large --1,000 plus acres --and very small --1 to 9 acres --farms did not change significantly in that time.
The average age of principal farm operators was 58.3 years. That’s up two percent since 2007, and it continues a 30-year trend of aging producers.
Meanwhile, the number of beginning farmers – those on their current operation less than 10 years – declined 20 percent from 2007. Nearly 172,000 farmers had run their operations less than 5 years.
The market values of crops, livestock, and total agricultural products in 2012 all soared to record highs. U.S. farms sold nearly $395 billion worth of agricultural products in 2012…up 33 percent from 2007.
Nationally, the number of farms decreased in 34 states but increased in 16 states. And, in several southeastern and midwestern states, the decrease was statistically significant.
Responding to the report, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “The preliminary data provides a snapshot of a strong rural America that has remained stable during difficult economic times. We have slowed significantly the loss of farmland, which has totaled 72 million acres since 1982. New tools provided in the 2014 Farm Bill will help to further slow and reverse this trend.”
The Agriculture Department will release the full Census later this spring.