Sunday, March 29, 2009

An honest count...

A reader asks the Agricultural Sphinx Riddle:
Love your blogs, read them daily. I have an FFA speech-giving daughter that needs a bit of help.
She needs to know the % of the US population actively engaged in production agrigulture. It's 2% or less, but she needs a link or some such to cite in her works. I've plowed-no pun- through all the USDA stuff I could stomach, to no avail....
And here we go...

First, we don't agree on what "production agriculture" means. While farm organizations and the USDA love to bloat the number like cat fur before a fight to make themselves seem representatives of enormous constituency, we know the vast majority of farm output comes from very few farms.  So if we're counting for political reasons, the number includes apparently anyone with a tomato plant.

That said, the emergence of a vigorous agrarian or artisinal sector sector (local, organic, etc.) should not be entirely dismissed IMHO.  They do produce ag products, just not nearly as much as most folks think.

Now notice that Farm Bureau uses the weasel-term "member families".  The more accurate term is "insurance customers".   No help there.

Furthermore, all my career farmers themselves have been wrangling about what the necessary qualifications for being a "real farmer" are. No progress on that front, so I've moved on.

So my rule of thumb is to use some arbitrary benchmark of say, 80% of [insert crop/product here] is produced by X thousand growers. An example:

In terms of farm sales, 125,000 farms account for 75 percent of production, compared to 144,000 farms accounting for 75 percent of production in 2002. [More]
 What this allows is an accurate, and I hope non-judgmental measure of product originators.  These numbers can be parsed out from USDA (2007 Census of Ag) production numbers and for program crops from the EWG database, since subsidy payments are a pretty good analog for farm size/output.

As as for the concept of active engagement, that is currently a subject of intense legal scrutiny.

Gentle readers: please feel free to help this young lady with her homework or pose a different angle in how to count farmers.  Honestly, I really don't know the "right" answer.  Put you suggestions and links in the comments.

I do know it ain't "2%" of the population.  Crimony, that's 6 million people!

Bottom line:  you can make the number anything you want to fit your purpose. But the reality is not very many and rapidly getting less. 

Update:  The original sender came up with this from the Census and NASS:
Without the beating of the proverbial dead horse, here it is straight from the horse's mouth, or typing little hooves:
From the Census Bureau we had 303,824,650 souls living in the US in 2007. So, doing the math, it comes to .726%  of the US population "actively engaged in production agriculture"  [my quotes].
Thank you for your inquiry to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) regarding the percent of the population involved in agriculture.  According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, there are 2, 204,792 farm and ranch operators engaged in production agriculture.

You would need to contact the Census Bureau to find out the number of the entire population.  Regrettably, NASS only captures crop and livestock statistics for the U.S.  We hope this information is useful to you.  Please send our best to your daughter with her speech.

Thanks for the additional input, Mark!


Ol James said...

I have heard that 2% number just recently. The source eludes me at the moment, but I'll try to find it. I want to say it was from a former Sec. of AG or governor.
The comment was, before the Great Depression that 98% of the population was involved in the feeding of 2% of the nation. Now, 2% of the nation feeds 98% of the population and similar percentages in other countries. Either way that's a lot. It's wet here so I'll do a bit of digging.
Try this-
there's a lot of info here.

Anonymous said...

maybe farmers 1%--processors-suppliers 1% ??-regards-kevin

Bill Harshaw said...

The highlights of the ag census ( the number is increasing:
"The 2007 Census counted 2,204,792 farms in the United States, a net increase of 75,810 farms. Nearly 300,000 new farms have begun operation since the last census in 2002. Compared to all farms nationwide, these new farms tend to have more diversified production, fewer acres, lower sales and younger operators who also work off-farm.

"In the past five years, U.S. farm operators have become more demographically diverse. The 2007 Census counted nearly 30 percent more women as principal farm operators. The count of Hispanic operators grew by 10 percent, and the counts of American Indian, Asian and Black farm operators increased as well. "

2.2 million times 3 persons per household is 6.6 million.

Anonymous said...

John, thank you for your service and for keeping things interesting! I don't know what we would do without you and your insight, and sense of humor.