Farming: A Close Look at the Big Picture

February 13, 2009

farmlandAt CUESA, we’re always interested in how the trends we’re observing in farming compare with the national data. Now, thanks to the release of the 2007 Census of Agriculture, we have a whole new round of numbers to ponder. Here’s what we’ve found most useful:

The middle is dropping out
The number of farms in the US has grown, overall, by four percent in the last five years. That increase, however, has been mainly in small farms and large, industrial-sized ones with sales over $500,000 a year. In fact, a tiny five percent of total farms, about 125,000 of them, now account for three quarters of all agricultural production. Meanwhile, mid-sized farms are becoming less and less common.

According to The Environmental Working Group’s blog, Mulch, this data “helps support the notion that the flawed policy of federal farm subsidy payments, funded by taxpayers, is accelerating the consolidation of farms into the hands of bigger and wealthier operations.” EMG continues:

The fact that the numbers of small farms are increasing is good news, despite a huge inequity percentage-wise in federal support compared to large commodity farmers. Imagine the difference real support could mean for the organic and localvore movements.

The mainstream press has been quick to pick up on the USDA’s term “lifestyle farm” to refer to the growing number of farms with sales between $1,000 and $250,000 where the operator makes his/her primary living outside the farm. But the census doesn’t delineate between people who simply enjoy the rural lifestyle and those whose farms would be in full production if the owners felt it were possible to make a living doing so. Considering the fact that over 80 percent of the small farms (10-49 acres) reporting made less than $10,000, it’s possible that a fair portion of these “lifestylers” might prefer to stay home and farm if they could.

Sustainable practices continued to grow
Organic food sales skyrocketed in 2007, to $1.7 billion in 2007 from the $390 million in sales that were reported at the time of the last census. It only makes sense, then, that the number of organic farms also rose significantly —from 12,000 to over 18,000 in just five years.

Along with the rise in organics, the nation also saw growth in direct sales of food by farmers — meaning a likely rise in the numbers of eaters accessing local food. Some 12,500 farms now market their crops through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. In addition, the census found that sales at farm stands and farmers’ markets rose a full 49 percent. Also on the sustainability front: over 23,000 farms now report generating some portion of their own energy.

Farms are becoming more diverse
There were 30 percent more women working as farm operators in 2007 than in 2002. The number of Latino operators grew by 10 percent; the numbers of American Indian and Black farm operators also went up, and the number of Asian farmers (although still relatively small) nearly quadrupled in this period.

The age of the average farmer is still going up
The average farmer’s age is now 57 years, up from 55 in 2002 and 50 in 1978. In the past five years there has also been a 30 percent decrease in the number of farmers under age 25.

Vilsack is taking note
Our new Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, said he will be directing his team at the USDA to “review the Census and propose ambitious, measurable goals to make sure that the People’s Department is hard at work for all the people — our diverse customers and the full diversity of agriculture.” The best way to do that, say some pundits, is to appoint a sustainability-minded undersecretary like Chuck Hassebrook, the director of Nebraska’s Center for Rural Affairs, or any of the other 11 people on the Food Democracy Now!’s Sustainable Dozen list.

See PDFs of the farm numbers, farm demographics, or economics census fact sheets to go deeper into the census data.

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