Who are you calling 'rich'? A small farmer shares some hard data

Who are you calling 'rich'? A small farmer shares some hard data

POSTED: Saturday, July 28, 2012 - 9:30pm

UPDATED: Saturday, July 28, 2012 - 9:34pm

Over the past couple of years I have been able to share some of my thoughts with readers of Eatocracy with articles in 5@5 and Chefs with Issues. The comments posted after those articles are often upsetting for a farmer to read.

I've read claims like "American farmers, among the wealthiest Americans..." I have also come across people who believe that "Americans are taxed 20B USD (!!) a year in farm subsidies, so I feel I have already purchased your produce."

So I thought I would share some data - not an opinion, but hard facts from the U.S. Census Bureau and the United States Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service to paint a more accurate portrait of America's farmers.

In our society as a whole, the wealthiest control the largest amount of our wealth. In farming, indeed the large corporate farms far outweigh the income, the land, the revenue and the profits of American agriculture.

How much are farms raking in?

- In 2009 (the latest data available), the net earnings from farming activities on 90.5 percent of all farms in America (with sales less than $249,000) was on average $2,615.

- 73.5 percent of all farm income comes from the top 5.3 percent of all farms (those bringing in $500,000 or above annually) in terms of gross revenue.

How much livestock does it take?

In 2005, Ohio State published a study entitled "How many sheep would it take to make a living?".

The author, Donald J. Breece, assumed that the goal was a net income of $50,000 (the average farm family living expenses plus taxes in 2003 was $46,752 per family and in 2011 it increased to $51,413 according to U.S. Labor Department data).

The study determined that it would take a farm to generate $300,000 in gross revenue or 1778 ewes (plus their lambs) to generate this "average income" in 2003. There is nothing "average" about a sheep farm with 1778 ewes and approximately 2600 lambs.

Only 10.8 percent of American farms have gross sales of $250,000. This upper ten percent own 49.4 percent of American farmland and each of their farms averages more than 2000 acres. These are not the farms you are likely to see as you drive down a country road.

98.9 percent of all breeding sheep operations have fewer than 500 ewes. The other 1.1 percent have 43 percent of the country's breeding sheep inventory.

The situation is even more unbalanced in hog and pig operations. 58.1 percent of the hog and pig inventory in America is on 0.2 percent of the hog farms in America (farms with 50,000 hogs on them). Also, 91 percent of the hog and pig inventory is on farms with 2000 or more hogs and pigs on them, which represent the top 0.5 percent of farms.

That's a lot of pigs and again - not the farm you are likely to see on your country drive.

Why not just sell direct?

Many farmers are adding to their gross sales by attempting to sell directly to stores, chefs and consumers, but this is hardly a panacea. Most American farms are not in reasonable driving distance to urban centers where consumer, wholesale and restaurant sales can be significant.

In 2005 only 6.5 percent of all farmers markets (not individual farmers or vendors, but the entire market) have annual total sales greater than $25,000. 71.4 percent of farmers markets produce less than $5000 in annual sales.

There are indeed very successful farmers markets. Again, in 2005, 0.6 percent of farmers markets had gross annual sales of $100,000. None were in the Northeast or Rocky Mountain region, the most were in the Southeast (2.4 percent of their markets), and very small percentages, 0.2-0.7, were located in the other regions of the country.

Please don't yell at the 90 percent of farmers!

When farmers hear and read about farmers receiving billions of dollars of government subsidies, they are as dismayed as anyone else. A sheep farmer, organic produce farmer, chicken farmer and pig farmer won't see that money. The subsidies are for very specific crops which most farmers don't grow and which are controlled by the largest of the large farms.

The data above includes government subsidies and payments as a part of gross annual sales. So much like the rest of society, 73.5 percent of all farm income comes from the top 5.3 percent of farms.

Most farmers are struggling and over these past few weeks, you could watch the news and see farmers with grandchildren in tears as the drought brought an end to their generational farm.

Those farms you see dotting the countryside are not likely to have over 2000 hogs and pigs or to have 1700 ewes. The farms you are most likely to stumble across are part of the bottom 90.5 percent, bringing in an average net income of $2,615.

As a farmer and a shepherd, when I hear you state with disdain how rich we are, how much in government subsidies we get, how lucrative our profession is, I look around in puzzlement. That is not me or my farm, nor does it reflect the farms of my neighbors, or any I know of in Patrick County, Virginia.

Farmers are a hard working lot. When you yell at the top ten percent without being specific about which farmer you are referring to, we all hear you.

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