Census of Agriculture actually shows disappearance of mid-size farming

The headline and the lead paragraph in the USDA story are initially encouraging, albeit misleading: “Census of Agriculture shows growing diversity in U.S. farming.” Then, the line of the story boasts that the number of farms in the United States has grown by 4 percent from 2002 to 2007, with the operators of those farms becoming more diverse.

The truth — as it may impact many of you — is there, but it’s buried down farther in the story, below the numbers that show the 2007 census counted 2,204,792 farms in the United States, a net increase of 75,810 farms since the last report. Nearly 300,000 new farms have begun operation since the last census in 2002.

Compared to all farms nationwide, these new farms, states the report, tend to have operators who are more diversified in gender and race, more diversified production, fewer acres, lower sales and younger operators who also work off-farm.

The only good part of this news is the diversity — we all can agree that it’s a positive sign that in the past five years, U.S. farm operators have become more demographically diverse. The 2007 Census counted nearly 30 percent more women as principal farm operators. The count of Hispanic operators grew by 10 percent, and the counts of American Indian, Asian and Black farm operators increased as well. And it’s also good that these new farms are not relying so much on one crop.

It’s not good, however, that these new farms have fewer acres, lower sales and more operators who have to work away from the farm. What all of this adds up to is that few of these new “farmers” are making a living at it, and more often than not, their farm work is supported to some extent by an off-the-farm job. Essentially, the majority of the new farms that have come into being since 2002 are small, part-time operations.

This will sound like a familiar refrain to anyone who has been paying attention to political campaigns in the past year or so, but the middle class is disappearing, especially as it applies to farming. Just as politicians and economists talk about the widening chasm between the very rich and the very poor in this country — with little in between — the same can be said of current trends in American agriculture.

Most farms in America today are either really large or really small. A case in point: about 900,000 of the nation’s 2.2 million farms generated $2,500 or less in sales in 2007. By contrast, 5 percent of total farms — or about 125,000 operations — accounted for 75 percent of agricultural production. In addition, more than 36 percent are classified as residential/lifestyle farms, with sales of less than $250,000 and operators with a primary occupation other than farming. Another 21 percent are retirement farms, which have sales of less than $250,000 and operators who reported they are retired.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, new USDA Secretary Tam Vilsack acknowledges that this is a problem, and he vows to do something about it, including encouraging income opportunities — like energy production, carbon sequestration, conservation and ecotourism — that go beyond the traditional crops and livestock. “You have to take a holistic approach and create the understanding that the whole thing is diversification,” he says.

One thing the census makes clear is that there’s no shortage of farms that could use help. Only 1 million of the 2.2 million American farms reported positive income from agriculture. The remainder relies on non-farm income to cover farm expenses and a rural lifestyle. And the percentage of farmers who had off-the-farm jobs increased to 65 from 55 percent just five years earlier.

One of the justifications for bailing out U.S. industries such as automobile manufacturing is that without it, America will lose a whole way of life, and it will lead to the eventual demise of the middle class. The same can be said for farming, and it’s time we recognized this.

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