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Ag Census 2007: A Profile of Our Smallest Farms (1-9 acres)

by: Jill Richardson

Wed Feb 04, 2009 at 22:52:03 PM PST


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The 2007 Ag Census came out this week. I wrote up some info about American farms through history yesterday. In this diary, I am going to focus on the smallest farms - 1 to 9 acres. In 2007, farms 1-9 acres made up the largest percent of American farms that they have made up ever since at least 1964. In 1964, farms of this size made up 5.8% of all farms. They've grown as a percent of all farms since this time, with a slight dip in 2002. But in 2007, they made up 10.6% of all farms. These acreage encompassed by these farms make up only 0.1% of all American farmland.

The absolute number of farms 1-9 acres has increased too, from 182,581 in 1964 to 232,849 in 2007. This is a number that has gone up and down throughout time, reaching a low of 128,254 in 1974, but this is the highest number of farms of this size of any of the years measured since 1964.

In short - the good news about these smallest farms is that their numbers are up - there are now 53k more of these small farms than there were in 2002 - but the bad news is that they aren't actually making a living off the land.

So who are these farmers, and what's happening on their farms?

Jill Richardson :: Ag Census 2007: A Profile of Our Smallest Farms (1-9 acres)
In 2007, the average size of these 232,849 small farms was 5 acres. The average farm in this group had $29,489 in sales but $28,124 in expenses, leaving them with an average income of $2870.

Obviously if we're talking about averages, the average farmer can't make a living on a farm smaller than 10 acres. In fact - only 29.1% of these farms showed net gains during 2007. The rest showed losses. Of course, only 32.7% of these farmers listed their principle occupation as farming, so it seems like most of these farmers are busy with something else that makes them a living.

39.7% of these small farms made < $1000 in sales during 2007. Here is how much the rest of the farms made in sales, shown as a percentage of all farms 1-9 acres.

Sales% of Farms 1-9 acres
< $100039.7%
$1000-$249919.7%
$2.5k-$499913.4%
$5k-$999910.1%
$10k-$24,9998.4%
$25k-$49,9993.4%
$50k-$99,9991.7%
$100k-$249,9991.6%
$250k-$499,9990.8%
$500k-$999,9990.6%
$1mil-$2,499,9990.4%
$2.5mil-$4,999,9990.1%
$5mil+0.1%

The average sales may be $28,124 but clearly, over 90% of these farms made less than $25,000 in sales. And over 80% of them had less than $10,000 in sales! In other words, most people with under 10 acres aren't really using farming as a living. However, there is a discrepancy between the 32.7% who list their primary occupation as farming but only 10% who make over $25k in sales. That probably explains the 19.8% listed as "limited resource farms."

More information can be gained by seeing how these farms break down into categories:

Limited Resource Farms: 19.8%

Limited-resource farms have market value of agricultural products sold gross sales of less than $100,000, and total principal operator household income of less than $20,000.

Retirement Farms: 17.1%

Retirement farms have market value of
agricultural products sold of less than $250,000,
and a principal operator who reports being
retired.

Residential/Lifestyle Farms: 45.9%

Residential/lifestyle farms have market value of agricultural products sold of less than $250,000, and a principal operator who reports his/her primary occupation as other than farming.

(A total of 63% of these small farmers are either retired, or their main occupation is something other than farming.)

Farming occupation - lower sales: 11.4%

Farming occupation/lower-sales farms have market value of agricultural products sold of less than $100,000, and a principal operator who reports farming as his/her primary occupation.

Farming occupation - higher sales: 0.7%

Farming occupation/higher-sales farms have market value of agricultural products sold of between $100,000 and $249,999, and a principal
operator who reports farming as his/her primary
occupation.

(1700 farms fall into this group. 3798 farms in this group made between $100k-$249k in sales. In other words, over half of the farms who make $100k-$249k in sales have a principle occupation other than farming, they are retired, or they are non-family farms.)

Large Family Farms: 0.7%

Large family farms have market value of agricultural products sold between $250,000 and $499,999.

(1622 farms are considered "Large Family Farms." 1926 farms made $250k-$499k. The 300 farms who made this much money but don't fall in this group must be non-family farms.)

Very Large Family Farms: 0.9%

Very large family farms have market value of agricultural products sold of $500,000 or more.

(Consider that 1.2% of these farms made $500k or more in sales. That's 2741 farms - and 2103 farms are considered "Very Large Family Farms." The other 600 or so farms that made over $500k must be non-family farms.)

Non-Family Farms: 3.5%

Nonfamily farms are farms organized as nonfamily corporations, as well as farms operated by hired managers.

Last, about 1.9% of these small farms are organic. This is actually a high number, given that only 0.9% of all farms of any size are organic.

By the way, how does one make millions on a farm under 10 acres (besides growing pot)? Well, this one kills me. 151 of these farms had over 500 cows. 1167 had more than 500 pigs. 32 had over 100,000 chickens for eggs. 850 had over 100,000 broilers. Those are an awful lot of critters to cram onto a small farm.

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I was thinking the same thing... (4.00 / 2)
By the way, how does one make millions on a farm under 10 acres (besides growing pot)?

Had an idea it was concentrated animal operations...


I wish they did larger measurements (4.00 / 2)
like saying how many had over 1000 cows, or over 500k chickens. I mean, I'm curious - how many animals do these small farms actually have??

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
There might be some legal herbal/medicinal stuff (4.00 / 3)
I've got 3.7 acres. I mostly grow grass, as it turns out. I can't imagine being able to put 132 cows on it but I suppose I could if they were stationery with feeding tubes and elimination tubes. The broilers would be easier because they only grow to 8 weeks or so, so you could get 5 "crops" a year.

I read once about some GMO stuff they were growing to make pharmaceuticals.  I suppose 10 acres of that might make that $5 million.

I got a catalog today from friends who have an herb farm (http://www.ancestreeherbals.com)on 3.5 acres (which doesn't count the walk-in cooler and processing areas that are on other land, I think). I don't know how much they make a year; there are two of them and they survive, but let's face it--they live a low impact life style and for all I know have other jobs in the non-growing season. I know they do wildcrafting on other land (in the wild, naturally). This is probably the most intense farming that you can do.

I also think that the CSA I used to belong to was on about 10 acres.  I think they had about 600 shares at $600 per share. (that seems a bit high for 10 acres, but that would be a gross of $360,000, which would have to support 2 farmers and a staff of about 10 people to grow and deliver stuff over a pretty wide area.  Again, high density.  But nowhere near $5 million.


interesting thoughts (4.00 / 2)
I really just don't know very much about this. I replied to you on Twitter that in my neck of the woods (San Diego) a majority of farms grow non-food crops (like flowers or nursery plants) because land prices are so high that you really need a high-value crop to stay afloat. But $5 million? I just don't know.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Now that I think of it... (4.00 / 2)
That seems about right.  I remember a whole bunch of them back in Jersey, see below...

[ Parent ]
Great point... (4.00 / 2)
I read once about some GMO stuff they were growing to make pharmaceuticals.  I suppose 10 acres of that might make that $5 million.

I have absolutely no clue how much they can pull in for that, but I don't see that as out of the realm of possibility.  

I remember my days back in Jersey working in environmental remediation, and I regularly had to travel all over the state.  Many of the fields along where Route 57 is a 2-lane country road between Washington Boro and Phillipsburg ran right up to the shoulder; and I can't remember the specific company names on the signs running along the fields (think it was Pioneer?), but it was pretty clear those crops were being grown for pharmaceutical purposes.  

Those fields weren't that big either, so they may be a part of the remainder of extremely high-grossing small farms outside of concentrated animal operations...


[ Parent ]
I just checked out the CSA I referred to above (4.00 / 3)
They are actually 50 acres.  Have been in business for 20 years, and are obviously experienced farmers.  They have 12 employees and serve both the Seattle and Portland metropolitan areas (mostly Seattle) with deliveries to drop spots 3 days during the week. A full share is $625 for the summer and feeds 3-4 people. A half share is $425 and feeds 1-2 people.
If you are in the area and interested the URL is http://www.helsingfarmcsa.com .
My guess is that after paying all the expenses they probably have a relatively small net income, but the gross sales is probably in the range I mentioned above.

[ Parent ]
NASS Survey (4.00 / 3)
One thing to keep in mind is that NASS appeared to modify how they did a survey. It appears they purchased mailing lists from agriculture related magazines. So, someone living in the city but subscribing to a magazine about raising chickens could have received a survey.

People who had never been contacted before and called about the survey were told they had to reply if they could raise more than $1000 in produce, not that they normally did. Also, people with small acreage and horses were told they had to respond if they had five or more horses.

I would really be interested to know the percentage of responses NASS received versus previous years. For basically non-ag folks the survey was a massive invasion of our privacy - is it really the government's business about whether or not we use the internet? The form would take hours to complete, a wrong answer could result in substantial fines, and the whole approach was very heavy-handed.

In my case the address that NASS used on the census form was unique, and I could trace it down to one particular magazine (I dropped my subscription and demanded that they remove me from their database).  Several months later I received promotional material for NAIS using the same address.


Wow... (4.00 / 2)
Sorry to hear that, AnnN.

Thanks for sharing your story...


[ Parent ]
AnnN is right... (4.00 / 4)
We got no less than 6 census forms, each addressed to me, my wife and the farm name and every combination of those - each with a threatening note about failure to comply, etc etc....  I would say that these census numbers are probably largely false, including lots of rural acreages and non-farms.

When I read this story in the paper I was jazzed about the apparent rise in small farms- until I realized that it's probably just creative accounting designed to draw more $$ into the farm programs,  and ultimately,  we know where that ends up-  not on my 15 acres!  


I would agree with this. (4.00 / 3)
And around here, a one-acre garden where excess produce is sold to customers by the road side is a market garden; earning pocket money or maybe enough $ to pay for next-seasons planting costs.

I sure isn't called a farm, though the gardener may refer to herself as a farmer.


[ Parent ]
I've certainly seen a CSA farm (4.00 / 3)
that was about 10 acres. 4 acres in veggies, the rest in corn. But they already owned the land and they made extra money by storing stuff for the city like snowplows (this was in WI) and charging a storage fee for it. But that was somebody who was trained as a farmer and just starting out, with the good luck of already owning the land through his family and having the storage contracts already set up by his family before he started farming. I'd imagine your average couple who wants to retire to the countryside on a farm and dabble around with a few cows and a few chickens isn't up to the job of running a CSA. But nor do they need the cash if they've got a nice fat 401k or a pension.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
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