by Courtney Llewellyn

On Dec. 10, the USDA released the results of its 2017 Census of Agriculture on specialty crops – the third time its NASS division summarized census data for this are of agriculture. The U.S. defines specialty crops as “fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops (including floriculture).” These plants must be cultivated or managed and used by people for food, medicine or aesthetic gratification.

The Big Picture

As of the 2017 census, more than 15.6 million acres (on about 243,000 farms) were reported as being used for specialty crops. Of that, 5.66 million acres were in orchards; 303,000 in berries; 3.97 million in vegetables; 4.3 million in pulse crops; 859,000 in nursery, greenhouse, floriculture and sod; 295,000 in Christmas trees; 76,000 in short rotation woody crops; and 193,000 in other specialty crops. Additionally, 4.44 million gallons of maple syrup were reported.

In all, the market value of agricultural products sold of all the specialty crops totaled $79,843,679. Even though the largest farms (of 1,000 acres or more) earned the most money, the sweet spot for smaller farms fell in the middle of the range – 27,752 farms made up of 100 to 249.9 acres, which made $8,178,904. Of the different size categories for farms, the largest number (55,696) were of 5.0 to 14.9 acres, and they made $2,361,584.

As for what crops were the biggest earners, vegetables led the pack ($29.6 million), followed by fruits from noncitrus orchards ($21.6 million), then nursery, greenhouse and floriculture ($20.1 million).

The Growers

Of the 243,000 farms which participated in the census, 99,463 reported using hired farm labor for a total of 1,198,000 workers. (Migrant labor was utilized on 10,586 farms.) A majority of all these workers labored at orchards, mostly noncitrus, and they tended to work less than 150 days. Nurseries, greenhouses and floriculture farms were the only ones who used more workers for 150 days or more.

The producers that responded were an interesting mix as well. Of 435,610 specialty crop growers, about two-thirds were male and one-third were female. The only crop where the sexes were almost equal was with those who had land in berries. More of the respondents said their primary occupation was off the farm than on it, especially those who had orchards, Christmas trees and maple syrup. (Vegetable, pulse crop and greenhouse growers were more likely to list farming as their full-time jobs.)

The average age of the producers was mostly in the mid-fifties, with the exception of those with citrus orchards, with an average age of almost 61. Those leaning younger were the ones growing vegetables, pulse crops and maple syrup. Growers of other specialty crops (which include herbs, hops and sweet corn for seed) were the youngest group, with an average age of 52.3.

Other Statistics

  • The top 10 states with the most acres in specialty crops were California (4,767,784 acres); North Dakota (1,463,183); Montana (1,429,337); Washington (1,112,175); Florida (871,069); Idaho (656,095); Michigan (573,840); Oregon (471,167); Minnesota (411,206); and Texas (373,171)
  • California was the only state with more than a million acres in orchards – more 3.63 million acres
  • Maine has the most acres in berries (39,930)
  • California, Idaho and Washington dedicated the most land to vegetable growing
  • Montana was the only state with more than a million acres dedicated to pulse crops – 1.41 million acres
  • Florida and California boast the most nursery, greenhouse and floriculture farms
  • Oregon, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New York had the most Christmas tree farms

What’s Next?

The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) is conducting the 2019 Census of Horticultural Specialties this winter. Survey codes were mailed in December to more than 40,000 horticulture producers. This information is collected once every five years. The 2019 census results will expand the 2017 census data with information on crop production, value of products, square footage used for growing crops, production expenses and more.

“Horticulture is a very important part of U.S. agriculture and our economy,” said King Whetstone, director of the NASS Northeastern Regional Field Office. “Responding to this census is the best way for growers to help associations, businesses and policymakers advocate for their industry, and influence program decisions and technology development over the next five years.”

Growers are asked to use their unique survey code to complete the horticulture census online via the NASS secure website. The online questionnaire is user-friendly, saving producers time by calculating totals and automatically skipping questions that don’t apply to their operations.

The deadline for response is Feb. 5. The results will be available in December 2020. For more information about the 2019 Census of Horticultural Specialties, visit

To check out more of the specialty crop statistics from the 2017 census, check out