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HOMEGROWN Life: A Farmer’s Take on the Agriculture Census

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150For 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.

HOMEGROWN-life-Bryce-Oates

Bryce on the 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.

HOMEGROWN Life: We Have a Farm Bill. Finally.

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150The Senate passed a farm bill on Tuesday that President Obama is expected to sign at the end of the week. Sure, it’s a couple of years late. And it doesn’t make sweeping changes to the way farm programs work. It doesn’t prioritize and fund innovation through local food system development and conservation to the degree that many of us would prefer. It doesn’t do much to tackle some of the biggest issues faced by our society today, problems like obesity and climate change. It’s just not that great of a legislative accomplishment.

The cynic in me wants to say, “Well, what do you expect? It’s Washington, after all. We’re lucky they even got something passed.”

And there’s a lot of reality to that way of thinking. The farm bill could be much worse. They could have cut the nutrition funding for low-income and struggling families by $40 billion, like the House of Representatives voted to do a few months back. They could have dismantled country-of-origin labeling implementation for food products. They could have cut conservation programs even more. They could have eliminated meaningful programs that fund entrepreneurship, growth of cooperatives, and rural community infrastructure.

I know that politics is the art of the possible. I know that change and reform are both rare and difficult to achieve.

But still, it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to know that this is the best we can do for the crucial piece of policy and funding that will govern farm and nutrition programs for the next five years. It’s frustrating to understand that so many “leaders” feel like low-income families shouldn’t get a helping hand when they’re struggling to put food on their tables.

I do want to say that there is active and thriving grassroots movement out there that’s trying to improve things with respect to federal farm and food policy. We’ve even got some national and Beltway cred. There’s Farm Aid, the National Family Farm Coalition, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the Rural Coalition. These organizations and others do the hard work of laying out a very different vision for federal farm programs.

In the political climate we’re in right now, I’d urge you all to say thank you to these groups for making sure the farm bill did have as many good things in it as it does.

I’d also urge you to stay informed and active. These issues are not going away. Maybe we can get to work and broaden our movement, gearing up for another farm bill a few years down the road. If we’re going to get something meaningful, we’ve got a lot of work to do in the meantime.

HOMEGROWN-life-Bryce-OatesBryce 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.

HOMEGROWN Life: A Farmer Mulls Vegetarianism. Thoughtfully.

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-logoI’m a farmer who cares about living within the rhythms of the annual cycle of living and dying. I might have fairly complicated human ambitions, but those are tempered by a grounded sense of the soil and the climate and the sunshine and the rain. These things help keep me mostly honest, at least when it comes to my agricultural endeavors.

I live out here on the homeplace because I like it. I enjoy living with plants and animals around me. I am part of the place’s ecology. I am a living and breathing creature, albeit one who can wield immense power via tools like fencing and knives and fossil-fuel-driven engines.

So that’s why I’ve chosen to explore a concept that I’ve struggled with over the years: vegetarianism.

I want to say first and foremost that I’m 100 percent pro-veggie. I grow veggies by the truckloads. I eat them every day. I feel strongly that people eat way too few green plants and way too much other junk. I am concerned about American fatness and heart disease and diabetes. I think most Americans would be better off if we quadrupled our intake of vegetables. My recipe for a better nation would include more farmers growing more and better veggies and more people cooking and eating them.

I’m also a good enviro with street cred. I hate factory livestock operations. I don’t like monoculture. I believe in preserving wilderness. I feel strongly that our society’s inability and lack of political will to deal with greenhouse-gas emissions is likely harming both human economy and nonhuman ecology in incredibly negative ways. I think we should work hard to decrease fossil-fuel emissions. I am, and have been, an activist involved with each of these issues.

I don’t believe in the mainstream agricultural prescriptions of genetic engineering, indoor meat production, or anhydrous ammonia fertilizer. They do more harm than good, and they are all very expensive, short-term solutions to the long-term question of how humans can feed a growing population.

Heck, I even struggle with the very concept of agriculture and civilization as a way of being human. I don’t like to kill animals. I am not that comfortable with the concept of living beings as my “property.” I don’t feel good about the concept of “owning the land.”

With all that said, though, I still eat meat. I kill and cut up and cook the animals I’ve cared for and fed. I sell animals to people who do the same. In my West Missouri climate, and with the land being what it is, animals are an essential component of a functioning ecosystem.

I really don’t know how to explain myself to vegetarians other than to say that we have this land around us. It’s made of soil and topography and vegetation. The sun shines. The rain falls. Things grow. Other things eat the things that grow. And other things eat the things that eat the things that grow. As my dad likes to tell my kids while we’re fishing, “The big fish eats the little fish, and that’s what makes the world go around.”

This all crystallized in my mind this week, so I had to speak up. I’m a consistent Grist reader, and there has been a lot of discussion over there recently about whether or not you can really be a good enviro while eating meat. Should we really rid the world of cows since they burp and fart methane? Is PETA really targeting small-scale, farmer-friendly butcher shops with billboards about the ethics of meat eating?

I think a lot about the practice of raising and eating animals. I struggle with the ethics of living the way I do. I am not comfortable with how agriculture is sometimes dependent upon the death of other creatures.

HOMEGROWN-life-baby-goat-kid

 

But then again, this week began the annual cycle on our farm of newly born babies from momma animals that need our care. Two of my goats birthed in very cold weather. Like it or not, these creatures require me to help them with feed and protection from the elements. They require me to separate them from predators and even from their goat friends so they can have their children in peace. They need me to give them clean water to drink.

I’m not even sure what all of this means. I’m not trying to be too high and mighty. There is no way that the common act of raising a few animals and some produce is heroic. Instead, I’m trying to explain a confusing situation. I’m sure the more PETA-minded would liken me to some kind of dictator. But that’s not how it feels when I’m playing nursemaid to a first-time goat momma who’s trying to make sure her babies are alive and well. That’s not how it feels when I hook up a heat lamp that gives these goats warmth and a chance to survive a harsh winter’s night. That’s not how it feels to live with the creatures I live with, despite the questions and conundrums of living an agricultural life.

Now, I don’t expect these words to talk anyone out of vegetarianism. I don’t even expect most people to understand my point of view. I don’t fully understand it myself. There’s a lot more to say on this topic, but I guess I want people to understand that even us farmers might not feel glowingly about our state of affairs. We have questions, too. At least, some of us do.

Bryce-OatesBryce 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.

PHOTOS: BRYCE OATES