Like a classic novel, the just-released Census of Agriculture lends itself to countless interpretations depending on whatever perspectives and biases an individual reader brings to the subject. Its noteworthy whenever long compendium of statistics generates anything approaching public interest, but this one-every-five-years report card on farming and ranching goes to the heart of a vital industry that has just weathered the worst economic recession in a lifetime.
National news reports focus on the continuing shift of most food production to a relatively small number of large corporate farmers. As NBC News summarized the story, large farms with over $1 million in sales account for only 4 percent of all farms, but 66 percent of all sales. Thats up considerably from 1 percent of all farms and 50 percent of all sales a decade ago. Most farmers now rely on outside jobs for a big share of family income, with three-quarters of farms reporting gross, pretax income of less than $50,000 a year. There are about 71,300 fewer farms now than in 1992.
Although one can lament the dominance of big companies in the industry, this system continues to produce quality food in quantities our ancestors wouldnt have been able to imagine. Other changes highlighted by our sister publication, the Capital Press, include: Since 2007 there has been a 5.9 percent decrease in females as principal farm operators; a 21 percent increase in Latino farmers with an increase in all ethnic groups as principal operators; a continued increase in the average age of farmers, up 1.2 years to 58.3 years old; a 20 percent decline in beginning farmers; a 1.4 percent increase in those who reported farming as their primary occupation.
For us in the Pacific Northwest, the census suggests a number of other trends:
The number of Oregon farms fell from 38,553 in 2007 to 35,439 at the time of the census and the amount of land used for farming in the state dropped by about 98,500 acres, to a little more than 16.3 million. In Washington, the number of farms fell from 39,284 to 37,247, and about 225,000 acres went out of production, leaving a total of about 14.75 million acres. This suggests, perhaps, that Oregons laws and policies are doing a somewhat better job of preserving farmland. But both states are clearly seeing continuing inroads into farmland inventories.
Fertilizer use is decreasing in Oregon, by about 14 percent from 2007 to 2012 in terms of the number of acres on which it was applied. In Washington, the number acres treated declined by about 11 percent. Use of pesticides targeting insects declined in both states, but weed-spray use was up substantially up 17 percent in Washington and 15 percent in Oregon by acreage. Some will see weed-spray use as a worrisome corollary of Montsantos success in marketing Roundup brand herbicide and crop seeds that are engineered to survive the spray.
There are many other trends, or hints about possible trends, sprinkled throughout the ag census. It behooves everyone to pay attention to these topics we all gotta eat.