Legislative Update - The American Farmer
To better understand how less really can be more, consider the American farmer. For much of history, many families grew and raised their own food, but today, one farmer feeds 100 people on average – and does it at a cost much less than you’ll find in other industrialized nations.
That fact, plus many others, can be found in the latest Census of Agriculture, which the federal government compiles every five years. The most recent report, which is based on data collected in 2017, was released last month.
It found that there are 3.4 million people who farm, and the number of acres they tend is anything but small. They manage a fourth of the United States’ total land area and about half of Kentucky’s.
In 2017, they used this land to raise and grow livestock and crops worth almost $390 billion, with Kentucky generating $5.7 billion of that.
Both here and nationally, farms are approaching the extremes when measuring their size and contributions. Those generating at least $5 million annually make up less than one percent of our country’s farms, but are responsible for more than a third of their output. Three-fourths of farms, meanwhile, generate less than $50,000 each year and produce just three percent of sales.
Here in Kentucky, there were less than 250 farms in 1987 measuring at least 2,000 acres, but we have almost 670 now.
While there are farms in every state, more than half of agriculture’s income can be found in just 10. In fact, California’s Fresno County alone generates more income than 25 states.
The farm census shows us that it takes a whole lot of money to get our nation’s livestock and crops to the market. In 2017, farmers spent more than $62 billion on feed, $31 billion for labor, $21 billion on seeds, and more than $30 billion on fuel and chemicals.
One major upward trend since the 2012 farm census is that women are playing a much larger role. While the number of men who farm went down by 1.7 percent, the number of women went up by more than four. In Kentucky, that translated to 11,000 more women
At the state level, you can really see the changes in farming over the last several decades. Since 1987, for example, the number of farms has dropped from 92,000 to 76,000, but their average size has grown from 152 to 171 acres. More troubling, Kentucky lost more than one million acres of farmland during that timeframe, with most being used for economic or residential purposes. That’s several hundred thousand acres larger than the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Federal officials have not yet updated Kentucky’s state rankings in various commodities, but the 2012 figures show that we compete well across the board. That year, we were tops in horses; second in tobacco; 15th and 16th, respectively, in poultry and cattle; and within the top 20 in the production of corn, soybeans and wheat.
The latest surveys, taken this past January, show that we have 2.1 million head of cattle and calves; 285,000 hogs, 64,000 sheep and nearly 60,000 goats. Our cows are producing right at one billion pounds of milk.
As vital as farming is, it is not the easiest job for those who dedicate their lives to it. Weather and disease are always unpredictable factors, and recent challenges tied to trade and low market prices make it even more difficult.
That’s something to keep in mind every time we sit down to eat. It takes a lot of people to get the food to our plate, but the family farm is the foundation on which everything else sits. I am so grateful for our community family farms and all they do for us.
If you have any thoughts about this, I would like to know. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and the toll-free message line for all state legislators is 1-800-372-7181. If you have a hearing impairment, the number is 1-800-896-0305.
Thanks for all you do, and holler anytime.