Are Red States Less Organic than Blue States?

Hannah Fairfield of The New York Times presents us with a map showing the locations of the nation's 10,159 organic farms. (Note, that's less than 1/2 of one percent of all U.S. farms, as USDA defines them.)

Fairfield writes:
The map of organic farms in the United States is clustered into a few geographic centers, a strikingly different pattern than the map of all farms, which spreads densely over many regions.
It's nice to see agriculture get good billing from the Times. Catherine Greene, cited by Fairfield, is an old friend of mine from USDA--we used to work in the same branch. She is probably the nation's foremost expert on organics and an important reason why statistics on organics are collected in the first place.

But these maps and Fairfield's quote are at least somewhat misleading--it's hard to tell how much. The impression given is that we Southerners don't like organics as much as the rest of the country and that's why there's less production concentrated in the South. There might be some truth to this, but it's easy to explain the production patterns in other ways.

Here are are few things to keep in mind when interpreting these maps:

1) As I described in two earlier posts [1, 2], the definition of a farm is very generous. This means half (or more) of the nation's 2.2 million farms probably don't even consider themselves farms. This is why the total farms map is so evenly spread out and why many USDA statistics can be misleading.

2) Some maps show locations of farms while others show locations of production units (acres or cows). Since a very small proportion of farms manage most production, these look very different.

3) Nearly all the organic farms are surely real farms (not hobby farms) because it takes awhile to gain certification and a farm won't do this unless they are serious about farming, organic or otherwise. So, it's not really appropriate to compare locations of organic farms with locations of all farms.

Combining these facts with careful study of the maps leads me to conclude that the geography of organic farms is explained mainly by the locations with comparative advantages in vegetable farming and dairy farming. I suspect it has little to do with demand, although that may be one factor.

These are quibbles that the New York Times should care about and I'm rather confident Catherine Greene told them about.

But the take home story is clear and unambiguous: the organics business is booming. I doubt even the recession will slow it down much. And I'm very happy the USDA is collecting data on this rapidly evolving and increasingly important segment of agriculture.

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