The latest nationwide farm census offers new information and corrects wrong impressions. To find out how much we know about farming, let’s take a short quiz, based on those latest results. Answer the following true-false questions.
1) There are more farms in America today than there were 100 years ago.
2) About one of every five American farms is a “retirement” or “lifestyle” farm, owned by someone who is retired or works at a job outside farming.
3) Corporate farms account for more than 50 percent of total agricultural sales.
4) The annual amount of subsidies farmers collect from taxpayers has increased nearly 25 percent in the past five years.
5) The number of farmers between the ages of 25 and 34 is on the decline.
All the correct answers are “false.” If you missed a few, don’t be embarrassed.
Each generation of Americans grows more distant from farming.
Look at quiz question No. 1. A hundred years ago, nearly a third of Americans lived on a farm. Today, only 2 percent of Americans live on a farm. And only half of that 2 percent are on farms where the owner’s chief occupation is farmer.
That brings us to the second question. More than 50 percent — not just one in five — of America’s 2.1 million farms are “retirement” or “lifestyle” farms. That leaves less than 1 million farms where the owner-operators are dependent on farm production for their livelihood.
Which leads to the third question. Corporate farms are only a small part of American farming. More than 95 percent of farms are family-owned. However, thousands of family farms are very large operations. In fact, about half of all farm production comes from the largest 5 percent of farms.
Farms have been growing in size for decades, as economies of scale make it more cost-effective to have more acres or more livestock. In addition, government policies can provide incentives to grow larger by offering more subsidies for more acres.
But the subsidy burden on taxpayers has declined in recent years, which is why question No. 4 is false. As prices for corn and other farm production have risen, farm incomes have increased above the levels that trigger subsidies. Gross cash incomes are up 25 percent in two years.
And that leads to the last question. Higher farm incomes have spurred a mini-revival of interest in farming careers. The number of young farmers actually increased slightly in the past five years. Yet the average age of the American farmer is 58, about 14 years older than the average for all workers.
Most Americans know little about farming, even though we depend on the production of a safe, affordable food supply. That is why the U.S. Census of Agriculture is important.
Its data can provide new information and correct misimpressions so we can make better decisions about consumer choices and government policies.
This article was distributed by the McClatchy-Tribune News Service.