USDA farm census results

Results from the USDA’s 2007 Agricultural Census were released recently, showing some fascinating trends, many of which are encouraging for supporters of small farms and local foods. For example:

Nearly 300,000 new farms have begun operation since the last census in 2002. Compared to all farms nationwide, these new farms tend to have more diversified production, fewer acres, lower sales and younger operators who also work off-farm.

These are all factors related to the growth in consumer support for local foods. Farms don’t have to be huge to be successful. That last line pretty well describes the new model of farming for a lot of people. There are a lot more young people choosing to run diversified direct-market farms than dual-crop commodity farms.

Between 2002 and 2007, the number of farms with sales of less than $2,500 increased by 74,000.

This could mean several things. Many of these may just be “hobby farms”, which detractors claim aren’t real because their operators have other businesses or don’t intend to do it full-time. But hey, a business is a business. $2,500 is still sales of something likely food-related, and totaled equals a significant new source of food, income, and consumer choice that didn’t exist before. I would also suspect that many of those are startup farms working to grow. Lots of the “young, diverse farmers” can’t afford to jump right in full-time, so they work off farm and slowly grow their business. That’s exactly what we’ve done. I’d love to track those 74,000 and see how many grew into full-time farms a few years down the road.

Finally, the census noted “a net increase of 75,810 farms”. That’s spectacular news after generations of farm numbers falling, due to our government’s misguided agricultural policies that promoted the “get big or get out” mentality. We’re finally seeing farming shift back to a smaller model that employs more people, generates more diverse products, and is less dependent on subsidies and interference. That has a lot of good ramifications for rural economies, safe food supplies, and public health. Now let’s see what 4 or more years of an increasingly impressive Vilsack influence can achieve.

Finally, it was interesting to note the Columbia Tribune’s recent take on the Ag census and its relation to Boone County. Reporter Jodie Jackson discussed all sorts of data, and repeated the common fear that “You’ve got nobody coming in to take their (older farmers) place”, yet somehow managed to completely leave out any discussion of the booming Columbia Farmers Market or the 20+ farms from Boone County that sell there (along with all the other regional farms). Not to mention other farmers markets in the county and the various farms that direct-market on site or through other methods than markets. It was a bizarre article to read, but really drove home the point I’ve made before that the agricultural establishment, in Missouri and nationwide, just doesn’t consider vegetables and direct-marketing “farming”.

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