Agriculture by the numbers


Every five years the US Department of Agriculture publishes the US Census of Agriculture.  The most current census is for 2007 and was published in 2009. I have previously written here about one aspect of the census – the first ever survey of native farmers and ranchers.

Recently I had occasion to use the Census again and I discovered more of its interesting aspects; this is an outstanding resource for those who want to understand agriculture in the American West.

With the Census, for example, you can investigate changes in the size of farms at the national, state, water basin and local (county or ZIP code) levels. Most census tables compare the 2007 levels with those from 2002. But one can also make comparisons on line back to the first census of agriculture which was conducted in 1840! And there are excellent fact sheets which summarize data. An example is the one titled Farm Numbers.

Here are a few comparisons from my latest foray into the Census of Agriculture that may be of interest to HCN readers:

  • Between 2002 and 2007 the number of farms in the US grew significantly. This reversed the trend to fewer farms which had been ongoing since WW II. The growth was in small farms (those with sales less than $1,000 per year) and in large farms (those with over $250,000 in annual sales). The number of medium sized farms – the classic family farms – continued to decrease. Many of those operating new small farms also work off the farm or are retired.
  • Very large farms – those with sales over $500,000 per year – had the largest percentage growth. The number of these very large farms almost doubled over the five year period. The picture which emerges is of an agricultural industry which is bifurcated: a few large, corporate farms produce most of the food while an increasing number of small farm operators rely on income from non-farm sources.
  • The number of farms receiving government payments is also on the increase. In 2002, 33 percent of US farms received government subsidy payments; by 2007 that had grown to 38 percent. The percentage of farms receiving government payments in California in 2007 was only 9 percent, however, and was stable over the five year period. That probably reflects the fact that more California farmers grow vegetables and fruits which are not subsidized.
  • The average government subsidy payment to farms in the US was $9,523 in 2007 – up from $9,251 in 2002. Very large farms take home the bulk of these subsidies. The 2007 percentage of farms receiving government subsidy payments for Colorado was 31%. You can calculate the government payment rate for your state by using on-line Table 5 and Table 8 .

Comparison of 2002 and 2007 Census of Agriculture figures also confirms a trend in the form of government subsidies to agriculture. The number of farms receiving Farm Bill Conservation Program subsidies increased by 36 percent over the five year period and the dollar value of those subsidies increased 26 percent. Crop (commodity) subsidies increased too but at a slower rate: 29 percent increase in the number of farms receiving payments and 21 percent in the dollar value of those payments.

More farms are becoming more dependent on government subsidy payments – including disaster payments. This should be of concern to those who want a strong, independent agricultural sector as well as to those seeking to maintain rural life and character. A change in government subsidy policy could lead to the failure of a significant percentage of US farms. 

The greater increase in conservation program payments reflects efforts by Congress to shift farm subsidies from commodities to conservation programs in anticipation of crop (commodity) payments becoming illegal under World Trade Organization and other trade pact rules. I have written on this blog about the waste, fraud and abuse which USDA Inspector Generals have reported as endemic and ongoing within these Farm Bill Conservation Programs. 

One of the really neat features of the Census of Agriculture is that you can look at the data by major hydrologic unit. I, for example, live in the Klamath River Basin (hydrologic unit H180102) so I looked at that data and made comparisons to California and to the nation as a whole.

In this way I discovered that in the Klamath River Basin average farm size in 2007 was 618 acres as compared to 349 acres for California as a whole and 418 acres for the entire US.  Within the Lower Green River hydrologic unit, average farm size in 2007 was 1,269 acres.  

In the rural West nearly everyone has an opinion about the future of agriculture in the nation, the region and the local area. These opinions reflect American and western agricultural and rural mythology much more than actual facts and figures. The US Census of Agriculture provides objective data westerners can use to understand what is really taking place in agriculture and against which we can test our own and our region’s agricultural beliefs and myths.

Have at it.

For additional information on USDA interactive data products, check out HCN's previous blog on the Atlas of  Small Town and Rural America and the Food and Environment Atlas.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Felice Pace has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1975. For 15 years, he worked for and led the Klamath Forest Alliance as Program Coordinator, Executive Director and Program Director. He remains part of the Alliance’s Core Group, and now consults with environmental and indigenous organizations on fund raising and program development. He currently resides at Klamath Glen, near the mouth of the Klamath River.

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