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Fun With the USDA Census

February 19, 2009

By Lee West

usda_cold_summerMy favorite federal bureaucracy has long been the USDA. What can I say? I’ve always had a thing for food-related organizations with four-letter acronyms. But the Department of Ag. occupies a special place in my heart thanks to the Census of Agriculture, a document published by the USDA every 5 years detailing the state of American farming. The latest installment in this series was published a few weeks back, and it’s been occupying my rapt attention ever since.

The Census was taken in 2007, so the data’s a little more than a year old, but that doesn’t take away from the suspense. (There’s a lot of it — the report weighs in at 739 pages.) Some highlights:

— As ever, farming is unprofitable for many who partake. I kind of had a sense of this, especially given all I hear about outlandish American ag. subsidies, but seeing the figures is still shocking. To boot: “Of the 2.2

million farms nationwide, only 1 million show positive net cash income from the farm operation. The remaining 1.2 million farms depend on non-farm income to cover farm expenses.” What?! This might explain why only 45% of farmers report farming as their primary occupation. Sheesh, I wouldn’t either. And what is “non-farm income”? The Census doesn’t say, but some of it is certainly agriculture subsidies, which totaled $8 billion in 2007 (a 22% increase since 2002) and went out to 840,000 farmers for an average payment of almost ten thousand dollars.

— Farming is also unprofitable for the laborers. The period 2002-2007 saw an increase in all of the production expenses for farmers due to inflation and a prolonged economic boom, but the cost of farm labor increased the least. So even if the boom meant that we all paid more for our food, that extra payment wasn’t fully passed on to workers — to those doing the actual work of farming.

— Agricultural production is concentrated in the hands of the few, and it’s getting worse. In 2002, 6.7% of U.S. farms produced 75 percent of the value of U.S. agricultural production, but in 2007, this share of production was produced by 5.6% of U.S. farms. If we needed a reminder that this sort of concentration of economic power might not be all rosy peaches, the example of the recent economic crisis should have served to remind us.

— Farmers are getting older (as they have been since the 1970s), with the average farmer-age rising to 57.

This paints a pretty dismal picture of American farming: an industry that fails to adequately compensate either owners or laborers, propped up by an extensive system of government subsidies, with vast inequalities among producers, manned by the AARP. And it is dismal — American agriculture needs serious systemic reform. If we had forgotten this, the Census will serve as a sobering reminder of the distance between us and a just, equitable and sustainable food system.

But it’s not all bad news in the Census — they have to keep you reading somehow! Some bright spots:

— In a surprise twist on page 589, the Census reveals that farmers are getting more diverse! Every ethnic minority saw their representation among farmers increase since 2002, but the real winners were women, whose role as “principle farm operators” increased over 30%.

— In every New England state the number of farms increased by more than 5%. This was surely due in no small part to the opening of the fabled Yale Farm in the summer of 2003. Go Connecticut!!!

OK, so maybe none of it’s that surprising. But it’s a good read nonetheless.

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