× Close Become a Member

RMFU Blog

Share:

2002 census of agriculture reveals alarming trend

By John Stencel

The recently released 2002 Census of Agriculture shows a trend that we should find alarming.

Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming—all states represented by Rocky Mountain Farmers Union—have between 1997 and 2002 experienced significant declines in the number of farming and ranching operations between 500 and 2000 acres in size.

Colorado and Wyoming actually show significant increases in the number of farms smaller than 180 acres. New Mexico showed a loss of farms in all categories, with the smallest losses in farms less than 180 acres and the greatest losses in the 500-2000 acre category.

From this data, personal observation and familiarity with years of mediocre public policy in agriculture, I draw the following conclusions:

In states undergoing rapid development due to growing populations, such as Colorado, and to a lesser degree, Wyoming, the 35-acre “ranchette” is the major contributor to the large increase in the number of farms shown on the 2002 Census of Agriculture. The vast majority of producers in this category rely solely on off-farm sources for their income.

Remember, to be classified by the IRS as a farmer, one need have merely $1000 in gross sales annually. Many of the farming operations in the 10-50 acre category are either hobbies or a means by which to reduce the owner’s income or property taxes. Certainly, some of these small acreage farmers are attempting to make a living through greenhouse production, and other specialty crops or livestock.

The increase in small acreage farms shows that a growing number of consumers are interested in buying products, such as organic or natural or grassfed foods, from small producers. This is very positive for the entrepreneur who is willing to work hard at growing specialty products and marketing them himself or through farmer-owned cooperatives.

Now for the bad news. Between 1997 and 2002, the number of farms in the 500-1000 category has fallen in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming by 4 percent, 31 percent and 13 percent, respectively. In the 1000-2000 category, the declines are 7 percent, 27 percent and 16 percent, respectively. Farms over 2000 acres have declined slightly but not to the extent of the medium-sized operations.

Typically, in the West, today’s independent family producer must have 500-2000 acres to even think of trying to make a living in farming or ranching. Even then, one or both spouses must work off-farm for additional income and benefits, such as health care. If the trend shown in the 2002 Census of Agriculture continues, middle-size farm and ranch operations—once the bread and butter of American agriculture—will become the smallest category of farms.

The rapid decline of this category of farmers should be of grave concern to all Americans. According to Washington D.C.-based research organization Earth Policy Institute, when this year’s grain harvest begins, world grain stocks will be at just 59 days of consumption. This is the lowest level in 30 years.

Family farmers and ranchers have produced the lion’s share of America’s food supply since before the founding of our country. Their perseverance, independence and diversity have for many generations supplied U.S. consumers with inexpensive, wholesome and responsibly-produced food and fiber.

While the increase in the number of small farms in the West is notable, these operations cannot replace the production capacity of our independent family producers. The largest producers may be able to pick up some of the slack, but they are generally less flexible, high-capital operations that are heavily dependent on farm subsidies. Some of the largest producers in this “large” category are corporate-owned and have little connection to the land or good stewardship of natural resources.

The only way to reverse this very alarming trend is to quickly implement policies that enable these families to make enough profit in their operations to be able to stay in business and to pass their farms and ranches on to the next generation. The easiest way to do this is to cap federal farm payments at a level necessary for family producers to stay in business. The public is tired of hearing about excessive subsidies. Let’s redirect this money to family producers so that they can serve their fellow Americans for another 200 years.