Don't take Census farm numbers seriously

The other day I had a somewhat technical post about the Agricultural Census and how the definition of a farm, and how it has implicitly changed over time, has a huge effect on farm numbers and the average size of farms.

The moral of the story: don't take Ag. Census numbers of small farms seriously. Most of what is changing is the definition of the farm, not the number or disposition of actual farms.

But it had to happen. Here is VERLYN KLINKENBORG of the New York Times getting it all (or at least mostly) wrong.

Good News From Iowa

Published: February 9, 2009
When I was born in 1952, there were 203,000 farms in Iowa, only 11,000 fewer than when my dad was born in 1926. By 2002, the number had dropped to about 90,000, with roughly the same acreage in production in a state with a population that had remained roughly the same. The national numbers followed the same track: fewer farms, bigger farms, less-diverse farms. To a lot of people, this looked like progress because the ideal of efficiency promulgated by the Department of Agriculture was bigger yields with fewer people.
This industrial notion of efficiency has always seemed terribly inefficient in other important ways: socially, culturally and environmentally. Too few people in a farming landscape means too little attention to the soil. It also means broken towns. The history of Iowa in the past 80 years has been the steady impoverishing of the rural landscape, a fact most easily grasped by the steadily dwindling number of farms.
So it comes as a pleasant surprise to find in the 2007 Census of Agriculture that the number of farms in Iowa has risen to 92,856, a level last seen in 1992. Some 4,000 new small farms have been created since 2002. These are very small farms, 9 acres or less, and they are producing a much wider array of crops than the rest of Iowa, which specializes in corn and soybeans. Most have very local markets, not Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. And yet as new farms are being created, midsize farms go out of business. Consolidation at the highest level — big farms eating slightly smaller farms — continues.
These are interesting numbers — 4,000 Iowa farms under 9 acres and about 1,500 with 2,000 acres or more. Still more interesting is the age differential. The average age of the “principal operator” on a farm has crept upward to 56 years old. But those small farms are being run by young farmers.
In a very real sense, they are going back to an earlier model of farming in Iowa. The farms are more diverse, and so are the crops they grow. To me, this is where the new passion for local foods finds its real meaning, and the best news is that Iowa is not alone. Nationwide, there are some 300,000 new farms since 2002. And the farmers? More diverse than ever, including a higher number of women. This is a genuine source of hope for American agriculture.
VERLYN KLINKENBORG: I would encourage you to:

(1) Take a close look at the definition of a farm, note that this definition hasn't changed since 1974, and then call the folks at the Census and ask a lot of questions about how they go about counting farms with less than $2500 in sales or potential sales. Ask them how their efforts to count small farms have changed over the last 10 years. Try to get them to be precise about which changes were made with each Census.

(2) Click over to NASS or Bloomberg or even the New York Times financial page and look at commodity prices and see what happed to those prices between 2002 and 2007. Then think: If a bunch of $500 dollar "farms" (i.e. family homes with a nice vegetable garden) just didn't make the cut to be in the 2002 Census, do you suppose that in 2007 their "farm" might make it into the Census, even if it didn't change at all?

(3) Given what you learn about (1) & (2), please post an addendum or correction to your article in the New York Times.


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