What is a farm?

Sounds like an obvious, even stupid question, no?

Awhile back I complained about reports in the New York Times and many other places that drank the spiked koolaid put out by the USDA that claimed the number of farms was growing. (See here and here.)

The problem is, the increase in the number of farms was in all likelihood a statistical allusion stemming from a quirky (and wholly misleading) definition of a farm. You see, most farms that USDA calls farms you and I probably wouldn't call a farm. To the USDA a farm is any place that could have produced $1000 of agricultural output. Horses, Christmas trees, and maple syrup all count. Inflation, high commodity prices in 2007, plus the fact that the USDA has been searching harder and harder for those illusive small farms over the last ten years or so, added up to more micro $1000 farms.

This goofy definition does strange things to both farm numbers and average farm size, to the point where average farm size is an utterly meaningless statistic.

Why do we have such a silly definition of a farm?

Well, some funding from USDA to the states is tied to the number of farms in the state. So yes, it matters a lot to some people what that definition is. And if USDA were acknowledge how few farms were really out there it might be harder for the agency to justify its existence.

Anyway. This was one of my rare posts that was picked up other more prominent bloggers out there, including a link from Mark Thoma, and nice mentions by Grist and Ezra Klein.

Not long after USDA-ERS came out with a nice little report lead-authored by an old friend and colleague Erik O'Donoghue that makes all of this very clear. I had lunch with Erik today and he tells me this little report is getting a lot of attention. That's very nice to hear!

Now will they change the definition of a farm? Well, I'm not holding my breath until they do.


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