The state of the American small farmer

by Caroline Brown

Tom Philpott at the Gristmill blog wrote a few days ago about the implications of the 2007 Farm Bill for small-scale farmers. He discusses two reports recently released by the USDA's Economic Research Service. I haven't read either of the reports yet, but Economic Well-Being of Farm Households and Growing Farm Size and the Distribution of Farm Payments contain findings that can only be described as a wake-up call for small farmers and especially for aspiring farmers.

A few of the findings, described by Tom:

* Commercial mega-farms — those with at least $250,000 in annual sales — represent just 7 percent of U.S. farms but command about 70 percent of total farm sales.
* The smaller the farm, the less profitable it is: "farm operating margins become more negative and share of household income from farm sources decreases as farm size diminishes."
* Here's the kicker: 85 percent of U.S. farms generate income of less than $100,000/year. These farms generate just "15 percent of [total U.S. farm] sales, and earn negligible income from farming."
* Not surprisingly, young people aren't going in to small-scale farming — probably because they can't afford to. "Over 30 percent of operators in the $10,000-$99,999 sales class were at least 65 years old by 2003, versus 13 percent of the operators of very large family farms." When these old operators retire, think their kids will want to continue a business that brings in a quarter less than every dollar spent?
* Government commodity payments — the Farm Bill's meat — increasingly support large farms rather than small ones: "Farms with less than $250,000 in production value (2003$) received 63 percent of commodity payments in 1989; by 2003, they received 43 percent of payments. But farms with at least $500,000 of production received 32 percent of all commodity payments in 2003, up from 13 percent in 1989."

Depressing stuff, although Tom seems to have hope that the U.S. farm policy can be "re-directed" via the 2007 Farm Bill. I'm of course waiting to see how that turns out, but on the personal end it's even more reason to buy local products from local small farmers whenever possible. Support your local farmers' markets and CSAs!

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