For What It's Worth
by Robert Spencer
The general public’s interaction and familiarity with agriculture in general has lessened with time and changes in agriculture. Much of this is due to various technological and mechanical advancements that have increased yields per acre. With increased productivity, more food is being grown, processed and marketed while fewer people are actually involved in agriculture - less than 2 percent of the population. However, there are some other interesting trends developing in agriculture.
In some areas, locally grown, healthy food has become more important to consumers; this has moved beyond purely organic food. More and more small, local food producers are promoting their locally grown fruits and vegetables. Bigger farms still ship long distance, there’s no way consumers can know where the food was grown, and there is a good feeling in knowing it’s grown at a farm five miles from where one lives. To know a local farmer seems to provide a personal relationship.
The cost of land, equipment, labor, fuel, fertilizer and other production inputs have become almost cost prohibitive to anyone interested in buying and starting a new operation. It is so much more financially feasible for someone to inherit a farm and initiate production than to take out huge loans to get started as a beginning farmer. Rather than starting out "big," some of the smaller start-up farms are 30 to 40 acres in size. The labor required to work small acreage is more intensive than larger-scale operations. Given today’s situation, the small scale farm is more likely a second income for many farmers. More and more are choosing to sell their products direct to consumers through farmers’ markets or selling to local restaurants rather than allowing a middleman to purchase them at wholesale prices and mark them up to retail prices. For many retirees and young farmers farming on a small-scale has become a lifestyle choice.
More and more small-scale farmers are trying to fill an ever-growing niche in the local markets; they realize this is part of a marketing strategy that gives them a marketing advantage over common fruits, vegetables and meats. We’re seeing a lot more young people who want to get into farming, but doing it in a much smaller way.
Then there is the growing trend among certain consumers who are cognizant of their food quality and want to know where their food comes from, and they’re willing to pay more if they know how it’s grown locally. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, a federally funded agency, has initiated Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, whose mission is to strengthen local and regional food systems.
We know demand for local and regional foods is strong, as consumers across the country are looking to connect with their food and the people who grow and raise it. The USDA program website tells us:
The number of farmers markets has more than tripled in the past 15 years and there are now more than 7,175 around the country;
In 1986, there were two community supported agriculture operations, today there are over 4,000;
There are farm-to-school programs in 48 states, totaling more than 2,200 and up from two in 1996; and
All 50 states in the U.S. have agricultural branding programs such as "Farm Fresh" or "Eat Fresh, Eat Local."
The advantage of local farmers’ markets and local and regional markets often provide farmers with a higher share of the food dollar, and money spent at a local business often continues to circulate within the community, creating a multiplier effect and providing greater economic benefits to the area.
National Agriculture Statistics
And then there is the USDA Ag Census, conducted every five years by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, the most recent one being conducted in 2007. Keep in mind, a farm is counted as an operation that sells, or would normally sell, more than $1,000 in agricultural products a year. Some of the data shows U.S. farm operators are becoming more diverse.
Of the 2.2 million farms in the U.S., 1.83 million have a white male principal operator.
The number of principal operators of all races and ethnic backgrounds has increased 4 percent since 2002, but the growth in the number of non-white operators has outpaced this overall growth.
The number of operators of Hispanic origin has also increased 10 percent since 2002.
One of the most significant changes in the 2007 Census of Agriculture is the increase in female farm operators, both in terms of the absolute number and the percentage of all principal operators.
There were 306,209 female principal operators counted in 2007, up from 237,819 in 2002, an increase of almost 30 percent.
The number of small-sized farms are up. Farms with one to 179 acres are up from 2002. Mid- to large-sized farms of 180 to 1,999 acres are down; very large farms of 2,000 acres or more are up.
The average size of a farm is 418 acres, down slightly from 441 in 2002. The smallest farms counted: 1 to 9 acres; the largest farms counted: 2,000 acres or more.
Small farms are in the majority: 60 percent of all farms reported they earned less than $10,000 annually from farm sales.
Goats, sheep and vegetables raised on farms increased in 2007 while many other production sectors showed a drop or little change.
Working off-farm is more common in 2007 – the total number of farmers working off-farm increased 10 percent; in 2007, 65 percent or 1.2 million farmers work off-farm.
Alabama Agriculture Statistics
The latest agriculture census has found 8 percent more Alabama farms and 33 percent more female farmers than five years earlier.
The number of farms had risen in Alabama, from 45,126 in 2002 to 48,753 in 2007. That stopped a downward trend and was greater than the 4 percent increase seen nationally.
The increase in female farmers – from 4,821 in 2002 to 6,444 in 2007 – was very significant.
"Thirty-three percent is a pretty stout increase," said Bill Weaver, director of the statistical service’s Alabama field office. The number of black farmers rose 15 percent, from 2,350 in 2002 to 2,709 in 2007.
This article has shared some agriculture information and provided exposure to some agencies and trivia with which some readers may not be familiar. To me the most interesting statistic regarding agriculture is: "The average age of an Alabama farmer is 57.6 years." When you have some spare time, do some research on agriculture production and see what kind of information you can find to spark your interest. Keep in mind, this is 2012, five years since the last Ag Census, and another one is about to be conducted which will reveal more interesting statistics.
Robert Spencer is an agricultural specialist with Alabama Cooperative Extension System.