What’s missing

The latest US Agricultural Census tells two different stories. Depending on which one you want to believe, farming is either badly broken or it’s doing great. Here are some widely cited stats based on the 2022 survey:

>>The size of the average farm has increased, up 5%

>>The total number of farms with more than $1 million in sales grew by 36%

>>Farms with sales of $1 million or more were 6% of U.S. farms and sold more than three-fourths of all agricultural products

>>All categories of farms declined, except the two largest: those with sales between $1-4.9 million, and those with sales over.

>>Nearly three-fourths of farmland was used by to produce two commodities: oilseed and grain production (32%) and beef cattle production (40%).

>>Farms with sales of $50,000 or less accounted for 74% of farms and 2% of sales.

US Agriculture Secretary Vilsak remarked on this year’s census, “We are at a pivotal moment, in which we have the opportunity to hold tight to the status quo and shrink our nation’s agriculture sector further, or we can choose a more expansive, newer model that creates more opportunity, for more farmers.”

In both of his times in office (currently and in 2009 to 2017), Secretary Vilsak has tried to simultaneously support large-scale commodity agriculture and increase the number of small farmers. In 2010 he asked, “Can we not only have production agriculture that’s the greatest and best in the world and, at the same time, create an opportunity for small and mid-sized producers to have a way of being prosperous?” This year’s census shows that question still remains to be answered.

The census also shows that what has defined agriculture for the last half century still does. Bigger and bigger industrial farms thrive. Small farms can’t and keep going out of business. These two farm stories are really about two different types of economies.

In the first economy, large farms leverage equipment and chemicals on thousands of acres. They may be owner-operated or corporate controlled. Both types are maintained by cutting costs, especially labor since that is the largest expense of any farm operation. That means large numbers of low-wage employees or automation. Much of the production is used to make processed food and ethanol, or it is exported. Many are proud to call this a success story.

The second economy is one in which small farms persist even when they aren’t financially viable. Census figures continue to capture their struggle. Advocacy groups and non-profits hope to create change by applying traditional, old school thinking based on owning acres of land, and outdated business models.

It does not have to be this way, and it isn’t for SPIN farmers who are willing to defy worn-out expectations. Our farms don’t look like huge monochromatic blocks of grain or green fields surrounded by rolling countryside. Our farms weave together garden-size plots and individual rows of hundreds of different kinds of crops. Our economy looks like this: thousands of people farming thousands of acres, with cash flowing directly to those doing and benefiting from the work. Much of the money stays within the community and creates spin-off businesses like value-added food processing, composting and supply stores, all owned and operated by the people they serve.

This decentralized food supply chain not only increases access to more fresh nutritious food. It also keeps cash circulating, which sustains more people. This is the new story of farming. The census has yet to tell it because the number of SPIN farmers don’t yet amount to a data point. But in the meantime, for the people we feed, and the communities we serve, we count for something.


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