Understanding agriculture...and farmers too!


If you know farmers, you know that most of them can be relied upon to provide gloomy reports looking backward and gloomier forecasts going forward. If most of the farmers I know have a good year, they will not talk about it but instead will tell you about all the bad things that are about to happen to erase any gains they’ve made. If we were to judge the status of our agricultural economy based on these statements, we would wonder why anyone engages in agriculture and we would be inclined to believe – as is often claimed – that farmers chose farming for the “life-style” rather than for profits. I’ve found that a better indicator of how the farm fared is the rig that the farmer is driving. A new pick-up or highway cruiser indicates that last year was a particularly good year on the farm.

There are undoubtedly a large number of farms in the West and elsewhere where the desire for the farm lifestyle figures prominently in owners’ motivations. Most of these farms are small (under 100 acres) and most of them receive a significant amount of family income from non-farm employment. But the bulk of agricultural production in this country is from large farms and these farms are getting larger and more profitable.

In late December the USDA’s Economic Research Service released figures on the agricultural economy in 2007. Net farm income was up over 50% over 2006, setting a new record. With the exception of Wyoming - where net farm income fell significantly in 2007 - states in the region followed the national trend. In fact the northern tier of western states (Washington, Idaho, Montana, North and South Dakota) saw farm income increase more than 20% over 2006. In Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho there were 3,500 fewer farms, but those farms generated $7.5 billion more revenue.

This data is from the USDA’s Economic Research Service which not only publishes a wide variety of farm data and reports but also provides web-based briefing sections on a variety of farm topics and issues.

Another significant development in US Agriculture occurred late in 2008 when outgoing Secretary Ed Schafer announced the creation of a new USDA office to assess carbon credit values.

Carbon offset credits have become a contentious issue and how that issue is resolved has vast implications for agriculture and forestry in our region.  Carbon sequestration is projected as one of many “ecosystem services” that farms and forests provide. As crop payments shrink, agricultural interests are working to secure payments to farmers for these services. With carbon markets emerging and expected to grow in importance as countries struggle to reduce carbon emissions, agricultural and timber interests want to maximize the amount of money they are paid for sequestering carbon.   

But others argue that we should not pay farmers and timber companies for things they are already doing (planting crops and trees). Furthermore, scientific disputes have emerged concerning how much net carbon sequestration actually occurs when trees and crops are planted. Some scientists have argued that more carbon is emitted when trees and crops are planted than the trees and crops sequester. This issue – how much “carbon credit” if any a farm or forest can generate - is likely to become even more contentious in 2009. Here are links ( Link 1, Link 2, Link 3) to articles about the scientific controversies concerning carbon sequestration.  

High Country News has already become involved in the controversy. Back in November HCN published an article about carbon claims made by retired forestry professor Thomas Bonnicksen. With support from timber corporations, Bonnicksen performed calculations he says indicate that when western forests burn they emit large amounts of carbon dioxide. He further asserts that aggressive forest “thinning” is needed to reduce fire risk and thereby combat global warming.

Arguments to increase logging in order to reduce the damage from wildfire are standard practice for timber interests and its shills. However, a number of forest scientists and HCN readers have challenged Bonnickson’s methods and his conclusions. The entire premise that logging can reduce fire risk has also been challenged most notably by environmentalist and author George Wuerthner

While at least a partial resolution to the thinning debate may be in the offing, as I argued in a December 14th GOAT post, arguments over the relationship between logging and fire risk will continue. Debate about the environmental benefits of farming will also continue – including disputes over whether crop farming sequesters carbon and if so how much farmers should be paid for the service.

As crop subsidies continue to be phased out in order to advance trade agreements, farmers will become more dependent on other forms of government support. Conservation payments, which have grown steadily for years, are one income source which will no doubt grow in importance to western farmers. Carbon sequestration may or may not become another source of farm income. Meanwhile the trend toward fewer farms in the West and across the US is expected to continue in 2009 and for the foreseeable future.

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