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Six Surprises About the State of the American Farm

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FARM TRACTOR
Christopher Pillitz via Getty Images

By Tracie McMillan, OnEarth

A few early-summer visits to the local farmers market are usually all it takes to turn us into cheerleaders for the American farm. But if you really want to know about the current state of farming in the U.S.A. (as opposed to merely knowing the current state of this summer's heirloom tomatoes), you'll need some real, hard facts.

For that, you'll want to turn to the latest Census of Agriculture (COA). Chances are you've never heard of it, but this comprehensive report, released every five years by the USDA, tracks the trendlines and changes affecting our farms and farmers, issuing a 700-page data set that offers a snapshot of American agriculture in a given year. Here, then, are six discussion-worthy--and perhaps surprising--facts about our nation's farms, taken from the most recent COA, released in May.

1. Yes, we have fewer farms than we used to. But business is booming!
Start with the basics: Between 2007 and 2012, the number of American farms dropped by about 4 percent, to 2.1 million. At the same time, 2012 turned out to be a banner year for American agriculture, with sales approaching $395 billion: a new record high. Keep in mind, however, that higher sales figures often simply mean higher prices--not higher yields. For example, American farmers actually grew 2 billion fewer bushels of corn in 2012 than they did in 2007, owing in part to massive droughts throughout the Corn Belt.

2. Business may be booming ... yet Americans are actually eating less of what our farmers produce.
Indeed, less than 50 percent of the food that's grown in the United States ends up on domestic dinner plates. (See our piece on a similar trend affecting U.S. seafood.) The 2012 Census marked the first time that commodity crops accounted for more than half of all farm acres in the United States. The majority of what came out of the ground on U.S. farms in 2012 went toward the production of ethanol and animal feed--and much of that wound up going overseas: China, for example, imports roughly 90 percent of its corn from the United States. Meanwhile, according to MyPlate, the USDA's online nutrition guide, the fruits and vegetables that the agency says should be making up half of our diet accounted for just over 10 percent of all domestic food sales.

3. Sales of locally sourced and organic food are way up  ... yet they're barely making a dent, relatively speaking.
Between 2002 and 2012, according to a COA analysis conducted by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, direct-to-consumer sales through things like farmers markets and community supported agriculture clubs (CSAs) climbed by 60 percent, from $812 million a year to $1.3 billion. That's likely because 30,000 farmers during that decade figured out how to skip the middleman. Instead of hawking their wares to wholesalers or the buyers for massive supermarket chains, these growers are now selling their produce directly at open markets--often organized through USDA-sponsored local food initiatives such as Food Hubs and Know-Your-Farmer. And while it can prove to be a logistical challenge to farmers, it also offers them a highly flexible business model that allows them to adapt quickly to market changes.

And adapatability matters. When Kroger, the national grocery-store chain, ended its contract with Michigan grower Jim Vansteenkiste in the late 1990s, "it hurt at the time," he says. Vansteenkiste, a fourth-generation vegetable farmer, had been selling practically everything he grew through Kroger up to that point. But since the breakup, he's been able to create a successful new business model on his own terms. At a stall in Detroit's Eastern Market, he now sells his produce directly to a regular stream of clients that includes smaller supermarkets and local restaurant chefs. In the end, he said, making the transition has "made our lives more calm."

Even so, it's important to remain clear-eyed about the progress of local and organic--which remains slow, if steady. Today, only 0.4 percent of the nation's $395 billion in agricultural sales can accurately be classified as "local." And although sales of organic products have nearly doubled over the last five years, they still account for only about 0.8 percent of all agricultural sales--roughly $3.12 billion worth.

4. It's really true: corporate mega-farms are squeezing out everybody else.
Those who wonder if early-20th-century-style monopolies (and oligopolies) could ever make a comeback may want to pay special attention to what the COA has to say about economic concentration in U.S. farms. Every census, the USDA tallies the number of farms that are responsible for producing three-quarters of our crops and calculates their average acreage. The fewer farms there are, the more concentrated their economic power. Troublingly, that measurement has been rising steadily: from 2007 to 2012, the total number of farms that account for three-quarters of American food production dropped by four percent--but each one of those farms, individually, increased its size and its sales.

The end result: an ever-smaller group of farms is wielding an ever-greater power in the marketplace--with megafarms currently averaging 2,400 acres of land and nearly $2.5 million in sales a year. Meanwhile, the number of farms under 2,000 acres--whether we're talking about 30-acre vegetable plots or 500 acres of corn--has dropped commensurately. The biggest concern lurking inside these statistics, say a number of sustainable-agriculture advocates, isn't that we're losing our smallest farms (although we are losing them, and it is a concern); it's that we're losing our mid-size farms. According to Scott Marlow, executive director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International, these are the farms best-positioned to make the switch from conventional growing practices to more sustainable ones. And because they're mid-sized rather than micro, they can supply substantial amounts of food to local wholesale markets, and get "farm-fresh" products into grocery stores, not just at the farmers market.

5. The vast majority of American farmers are still white, but the number of Hispanic, Asian-American, and African-American farmers appears to be growing.
The face of the American farmer definitely seems to be changing, with the COA data showing an increase in the number of young people and people of color entering the field. Between 2007 and 2012, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's COA analysis, the amount of both Hispanic and Asian-American farmers increased by more than 20 percent, and the number of African-American farmers increased by 9 percent.

Analysts still aren't completely sure if the higher figures represent a true rise in the number of minority farmers, or simply an improved means of collecting data. If the former turns out to be the case, it may well be thanks to the efforts of organizations supporting minority farmers, which have themselves grown significantly in recent years. The National Immigrant Farming Initiative has seen its ranks grow from 40 to 1,200 since launching in 2000, according to executive director Rigoberto Delgado. And the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, an advocacy group supporting black farmers, has long encouraged young African-Americans to take up farming. Ralph Paige, the group's executive director, attributes the increase in black farmers to "a lot of younger people moving back to the [family] farm."

6. The good news for farm workers is that there are more jobs than there have been in years. The bad news is that most of them don't offer a decent wage or job security.
According to the 2012 Census, the number of full-time farming jobs has gone up by 14 percent since 2007--a significant jump, especially coming as it does after "decades of stability" according to Philip Martin, an agricultural labor economist at the University of California-Davis. But more jobs doesn't necessarily mean more good jobs--as in stable, safe, secure, and well-paying. For one thing, Martin says, few farm jobs are year-round: more than half of American farms that hire workers do so for less than six months.

Even more worrying is the fact that more farms today appear to be classifying their laborers as "contractors," as opposed to actual farm employees, as this chart shows. For those laborers hoping to earn a decent living, that's an unwelcome trend: when growers bring on workers as contractors, it's far more common for the workers to receive less than minimum wage. If anybody complains, says Bruce Goldstein, executive director of the group Farmworker Justice, "the growers try to get away with this fiction that the workers on their farm aren't their employees." That's one reason that Farmworker Justice has made subcontracted labor a center of its advocacy, and is currently supporting an important case in California (which I wrote about in this 2012 article for The American Prospect) that challenges the practice.


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