HOMEGROWN Life: A Farmer’s Take on the Agriculture Census
For data nerds like me, I suppose there are few gifts that could compare with the joyous release every five years of the USDA Census of Agriculture. Given that I’m a farmer and sustainable agriculture advocate, I naturally want to track the real-time data trends about what’s happening with our nation’s agricultural scene. I’m interested in farm numbers, farm size, economic viability, the aging farm population, and more.
But what really interests me, just like in the broader social context of the wildly widening gap of economic disparity, are the differences between the median and the mean.
Inequality. It’s an important concept. So put on your social science goggles, and let’s get down to it.
Lots of people are familiar with the term “average.” In social sciences analysis, we call that the mean. Take the total amount of farm products sold in a year, divide it by the number of farmers, and you’re left with the mean. In 2012, the agriculture census tells us the mean, or “average,” amount of products sold was $187,093 per farm.
That sounds pretty good until you compare it with the median, which is actually much, much lower. The median is where you stack up all of a given population or wage-earning group and describe a characteristic from the middle. In this case, you’d stack all 2.1 million U.S. farmers by rank of sales per year, and the median would be farmer number 1.55 million. That’s a figure the USDA doesn’t even provide.
But here’s a signal: More than 1.6 million farmers of those total 2.1 million farmers sell less than $50,000 per year in agricultural products. That means the median is likely down in the $30- to $40-thousand level. (I’d be more precise, but this is preliminary data, and we won’t know more until all of the USDA ag census data for 2012 is released in May).
Here are some other interesting things to consider:
1.) The average size farm nationally is 434 acres per farm. The median is 80 acres.
2.) The average age of the farmer is 58.3 years old. Only 120,000 of the total 2.1 million farmers are under the age of 35.
3.) Of those 2.1 million farmers, just over half have jobs where farming is not considered their primary occupation. (This one can be confusing because farmers can have seriously low income levels but still be increasing their wealth. Also, USDA’s Economic Research Service generates annual reports demonstrating that between 82 and 95 percent of annual farm household income comes from off-farm sources.)
What does all of this mean?
Well, that requires some context to go with our content. My first thought is that agriculture is much like the rest of society. We have large levels of inequality. The larger farms are getting richer, as they’re wired through financing, cash-on-hand, equipment, and more to lock up more land that lower income farmers simply can’t afford. Those of us wanting 80 more acres for pasture and cattle and sheep can’t really outbid somebody coming in with a bulldozer, Roundup Ready beans, and lots of wealth on their balance sheet.
The larger farms are also getting richer because they have a policy situation in hand that protects them from weather and markets in a way that most small farmers do not: government-subsidized crop insurance. So larger farmers have used their wealth and power to create a political situation in their favor.
One thing I will say is that the 2012 census data for farmers isn’t an anomaly. It’s the continuation of trends that have existed for the last 40-plus years. Farmers are getting older. Big farmers (that’s primarily the row croppers) are getting bigger and richer. Small farmers are hanging in there but primarily through working off-farm jobs to pay their bills.
This sounds pretty much like the broader story of American society to me in 2014. It’s disappointing, for sure. And, no, I don’t begin to expect full equality and equal incomes. But taxing the rich and providing services and funding to the bottom 50 percent sounds like a better idea every day.
Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.