Census of Historic Barns in the United States

The data is in.  For the first time ever, the official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census of Agriculture included a question that asked farm and ranch owners across the country: do you have a barn that was built prior to 1960? 

According to results released earlier this year, a total of 664,264 farm and ranch owners said "yes."  That's about a third of all agricultural producers. 

A tobacco barn along the roadside in Washington County, KY.

Credit: Jim Lindberg, NTHP

What's in a Number?

The Census of Agriculture is conducted every five years.  It gathers all kinds of information about agricultural operations and practices, from the size of farms to what kinds of crops and animals are raised.  The new question about barns was added through the efforts of Iowa preservationist and barn advocate Rod Scott, who worked closely with congressional and USDA staff. 

The latest Census of Agriculture provides valuable data about which states and counties have the highest concentrations of older barns.  It will be helpful in prioritizing future surveys of historic resources to gain more detailed and complete information about historic barns and farmsteads.  It also demonstrates that thousands of farmers and ranchers could benefit from local, state and federal programs to help rehabilitate historic barns for continued and adaptive use.  As the BARN AGAIN! Program has shown, historic barns can be used to meet all kinds of modern agricultural needs, from machinery and grain storage to livestock shelter, farm stores and more.

The new data from the Census of Agriculture is not a count of all older barns in the United States.  Barns that are no longer on farms as well as barns located on farms that produce less than $1,000 in agricultural commodities are not included.  Also, the results do not indicate whether a property contains more than one pre-1960 barn.  Finally, the data is based on owner responses to the census survey, which may not always be accurate.  The survey return rate was 85.2 percent.

The next Census of Agriculture goes out to farm and ranch owners in 2012.  Planning is already underway to design the new census survey form.  Let us know if you have a question about historic barns that you think should be included in the next census.

Which states have the most old barns?

The results of the recent Census of Agriculture include some surprises about where older barns are located.  For example, the state with the most farms reporting pre-1960 barns is not Iowa, nor Wisconsin, nor Pennsylvania.  It is Texas.  (OK, maybe this isn't really a surprise.)  Below is a ranking of the top ten states where the most farmers or ranchers said they have a barn built prior to 1960. 

  1. Texas: 51,236  farms or ranches reporting at least one barn built before 1960
  2. Missouri: 36,007
  3. Wisconsin: 35,386
  4. Kentucky: 35,224
  5. Iowa: 34,224
  6. Ohio: 33,762
  7. Pennsylvania: 29,321
  8. Tennessee: 27,555
  9. Minnesota: 27,165
  10. Illinois: 25,767

Looking at these statistics, one might argue that larger states will always come out on top of the list.  What about a top ten list that takes into account total land area?  Here's a ranking of states when the results are calculated by the number of agricultural properties with barns built before 1960 per square mile.

  1. Kentucky: 0.89  farms or ranches with pre-1960 barns, for every square mile
  2. Ohio: 0.82
  3. Tennessee: 0.67
  4. Pennsylvania: 0.65
  5. Wisconsin: 0.65
  6. Indiana: 0.63
  7. Iowa: 0.61
  8. Maryland: 0.53
  9. Missouri: 0.52
  10. Illinois: 0.46

With this ranking in mind, it is particurlarly appropriate that Kentucky was the site of this year's national Heritage Barn Conference, organized by the National Barn Alliance in partnership with local hosts Preservation Kentucky and the Kentucky Heritage Council

A summary of how all 50 states stack up in these rankings can be downloaded here.  (Note: Alaska comes in at the bottom of both of these lists.  Only 61 agricultural producers across that state's 571,951 square miles reported a pre-1960 barn.) 

Mining the data

The full census results regarding pre-1960 barns (and all kinds of other information) are available on the USDA's website.  Data is searchable down to the county level, which can produce interesting results.  For example, a ranking of all United States counties shows that there are more pre-1960 barns on farms in just one county -- Lancaster County, Pennsylvania -- than in any single state in New England. 

In coming months, historic preservationists, agricultural researchers, barn advocates and others will be combing through the Census of Agriculture data to learn more about where old barns are located and how they fit into modern agricultural operations.  We'll be sure to post any results on PreservationNation.org.