Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Posts Tagged ‘USDA’

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: Living The Dream (Sort of). Drought On The Farm

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

I am one of those people that does not actually believe the grass is greener on the other side of the hill. I am neither pessimist nor optimist. I am full of passions and gut-wrenching opinion but understand that others feel the same way. I am not a judge. I have a hard time with black-and-white thinking.

So that is some context for a rant I wanted to leave you with on this Independence Day: I want to rant about drought.

Drought is hard on us out here in Farm Country. But drought in the midst of boiling hot summer is amongst the worst conditions I can imagine. At this point in West Missouri we’re numerous inches behind on rain for the average year. (Note–I am not trying to be un-precise here. It’s just that we’ve had so many spot-showers it’s hard to
specific. On my farm, we’ve had right at 3 inches of rain since April 1st. April-May-June being a bulwark of the year’s annual precipitation jolt–between 12-15 inches per year on average. Some farmers have gotten more, others less). We normally get around 40 inches of rain per year, but maybe we need to get around to figuring out the “new
normal.”

Since I’ve moved home to where I grew up last Fall, I’ve already experienced 2 droughts. One was the Fall of 2011 where farmers in the area sold off many cows and other animals due to lack of pond water and low hay yields. The other is now 2012 Spring on the heels of a mild and gentle winter. While local winter wheat yields made the great
leap forward, corn and beans are going to be non-existent. Hay crops had the great promise of many cuttings (some people were cutting hay in March and early April–that’s unheard of around here) but now our pastures are parched and won’t grow a bit until rains and sub-90-degree temperatures return.

The lack of rain and poor preparation for drought are likely intensified on a vegetable operation. Piping in water is a fine thing, but there is nothing like a good slow and soaking rain to let plants get established and healthy. We have not had that. Many of us have waited and waited and waited to transplant our seedlings into the field so that soil moisture isn’t completely decimated. And if we got rain, it was too late. Now, temperatures are above 95 degrees with heat indices of above 100 for a couple of weeks. There is no sign of relief.

Local farmers, whether they be of the row-crop or livestock or homestead type, have a couple of rules that they count on. First, there is always (nearly always) a Fourth of July Storm that makes the corn. Second, there is a State Fair Rain that finishes everything up and gives us some relief before Fall. These “rules” for local agriculture exist upon the heels of a wet and friendly spring. This year we were dry in the pre-season, staggered early, remained stunted
throughout the mid-season and are looking at a long-term forecast that is very scary.

Hauling and pumping water to garden and farm plants has to be one of the most insanity-producing tasks of humanity. Yes, plants need water. But the human work of moving water to parch the thirst of plants is a
frustrating, time-consuming and resource draining job. I hate it. I know I have to do it, but usually it’s a supplemental activity rather than the main event. It seems to be the definition of futility. That’s because I’ve already been watering for months. Watering to keep the plants alive. Then the heat sets in, the deep and red-hot heat, and
all of that water and all of that work whither and die. That’s before harvest and cashing in to earn whatever income was projected to come in. I’ve got all of the expense, and none of the pay-out.

I’ve said it before and know that the lesson needs to keep being repeated. We learn a lot about our farming systems when we’re in marginal production times. I’ve learned that I need to invest in irrigation systems that move water most efficiently to actually help solve this challenge. Thank goodness I’ve been awarded a contract with USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) conservation program to help me pay for it.

Still, it’s a hard lesson to learn. Row croppers around here are protected by crop insurance programs that will keep them producing crops next year. Livestock and veggie farmers like myself don’t have that kind of safety net. We are left to off-farm work and toil and living on fumes to make it until next year’s planting season. We know it will rain eventually. But when?

I say all of this not to complain about being a farmer. It’s a pretty good life, despite the challenges. But I want to give you a look into the brain of a semi-mad young farmer trying hard to learn his craft. Drought is pain, and pain hurts. My great worry is that Spring/Summer drought is now the rule instead of the exception. My great worry is that I thought I was moving back home to the Osage Plains climate where I grew up. Instead, it appears as if I’ve moved to a climate that has shifted to something more like that of San Antonio, Texas. That’s not the same thing.

Bryce is a farmer, father, writer and rural economic development entrepreneur. He works with his family to raise organic vegetables, beef, lamb, chickens, goats and manage the bottomland forest woodlot in Western Missouri. He has helped to launch numerous social enterprises including a sustainable wood processing cooperative, a dairy goat cheese processing facility and a conservation-based land management company that incentivizes carbon sequestration in forests and grasslands. Bryce currently co-owns the Root Cellar Grocery in Downtown Columbia, Missouri, where the local food store operates a weekly produce subscription program, the Missouri Bounty Box (www.missouribountybox.com). Bryce, along with 135 other farmers, sells his produce through this program.

It’s Official. We’re Looking For Land… A Guest Post

Friday, March 9th, 2012

It was so uplifting and exciting to read Vanessa Jean‘s member blog, so we wanted to share it here, too. Good luck Vanessa Jean!!

It’s official. We’re looking for land.

It’s been unofficial for a while. Like the few years of dreaming in Portland, when I didn’t quite know how the farm would fall into place. Then I met N in Boston, and we formed a shared vision for our farm while also acting superbly academic through two very-hard-to-sit-behind-a-desk years of grad school in Boston. Ick, Boston. There is only so much farming to be done in Boston, so we created an academic project allowing us to work with farmers on business planning and development for more hands on experience. Cheese in Vermont. Rabbits in North Carolina. Cost-share for irrigation development on leased land in Wisconsin. Then graduation and back to the real world, kerplunk in Madison, Wisconsin. Somehow one step closer to farming, but still not actually that much closer.

I’ve been pondering this lately. The idea that we both possess foundational skills for starting a farm: growing vegetables, small business development, finding markets, goats, chickens and a wee bit of dairy to name a few. We are smart and hardworking and overwhelmingly stubborn. We even earned actual degrees, from which we can cite you the ins-and-outs of every United State Department of Agriculture acronym related to starting a farm: EQIP, NRCS, NIFA, FSA, BFRDP, CAFO, CRP, NPDES (ok, that one is EPA) and on and on and on. And despite the fact that we know all the steps and all the hoops we have to jump through to get there…the farm still seems far away.

Yes, I know. Secretary Vilsack called for 100,000 new farmers. The 2008 Farm Bill appropriated $75 million dollars of funds for Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Programs to provide education and training to get new farmers started. And of course, we have Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food and inspiring advocates like USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan leading this movement to get more people farming. Not to mention the growing market and awareness surrounding local foods. And yet, to be actually in it, planning a farm as a born-and-bred city kid without ties to the land (more specifically a specific piece of land), it feels so so so far away. Creating all these funding opportunities and support systems doesn’t just magically create new farmers…it still takes lots and lots and lots of work on the part of the aspiring farmer.

Please do not get me wrong. I am so grateful that new farmer programs are a priority. I am thrilled to be enrolled in the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers, and working my way to a business plan, community ties and as much experience as I can gain in raising animals on pasture in this home that is still new to me. But the leap from learning and planning to actually farming feels so far away because we don’t have land.

However, that changed a bit today as we hopped in the car for a much-needed day of fun and adventure. The plan: visit New Glarus Brewing, enjoy some cross country skiing in the fresh snow and just explore some new territory southwest of Madison. Wisconsin’s landscape is still new to me, usually inspiring constant awe, and today was no exception. I didn’t know what to expect, but found promise in New Glarus‘ title (the city, not the brewery) as “America’s Little Switzerland”. Replica Swiss-style village, bakery, meat shop and all…count me in.

In short, as we drove the county roads and admired the freshly-snow covered landscape past Fitchburg, we sort of fell in love. Yup, kind of head-over-heals in love. The rolling hills, the beautiful and out-of-our-price-range farmsteads, a sense of ‘rural’ I haven’t yet seen here. (Yes, ok, I realize the snow was covering vast acres of corn and soy fields, and provided sufficient pretense to imagine instead lush pastures underneath. But let a girl dream for a few minutes). For some reason I liked this area, we both liked this area. It felt like the best parts of Vermont mingling right here with the highlights of Wisconsin.

We’ve decided to tell every person we run into that we’re looking for farm land, preferably with a house, barn and other structures. And yes, because we’d like to start a farm. This makes us look like starry-eyed crazy women to a lot of folks, but that’s fine with me. I just thank goodness for those who actually take us seriously and offer sincere advice. This includes the woman who was looking forward to when we’d get married and share our passion for farming with our husbands. I take their land and farming suggestions with a double meaning. Here is information about land that may help you. I am telling you this because I believe you might actually be able to farm, and I support that. These are the good people.

Today we ran into lots of the good people. The owner of The Cottage Goddess shared the basic landscape of real estate in the area, recommended agencies to work with based on her land purchase experience and provided inside scoop on an upcoming auction. We felt a wee bit, well, excited. She even suggested a visit to the Paoli Bread and Brat Haus to learn about their tiny baking enterprise and relationships with local millers and growers. And Cherri at the Haus was just as helpful as she served us free cookies (January was free cookie month), showed us her facility (including the tiny “EZ Bake Oven”), shared the story of her space (the original town mill) and how she got there (an inspired idea on a bare bones budget). And more stories about land, where to find it and where to plant ourselves. Thank you world for showing us people successfully pursuing food passion and how to make it work!

Our mid-day activities were buoyed by such positive real estate and farming encounters. A fun hour or so at the brewery, which looked oddly like a Disney McMansion rendition of a Swiss chalet with the cleanest and most modern brewing quarters I have ever seen. There were tastes of Wisconsin Belgian Red with hints of cough syrup and sparkling cider (sorry) and the seasonal Golden Ale that tasted “like insect repellent” (sorry again). There was beautiful, sunny, exhausting skiing at New Glarus Woods State Park which reminds me how grateful I am to apply sunscreen in January. Also cookies, prairie and lots of cute cows. Nothing to complain about in there.

A good day indeed, and a sufficient kick-in-the-pants to officially(as in actively and intentionally) look for land on which we can raise delicious and savory food and run a small business (which is, don’t forget, what a farm is). And so today it starts – with orienting ourselves to the real estate world of brokers and bankers while sending out good energy to find that little piece of soil to call our own.

Wish us luck.