Statistics on Farms and Farming

Back in January, I had the privilege to go to our state capital in Olympia to testify on a Senate Bill regarding farm internships (another story for another time). I've been talking with a few others lately about the statistics on farming and most people don't realize just how dire our food system will be in just a few years if we continue to do nothing.

Here is what I found out and in turn, presented to our state's Senators in the hearing...

  • 308,500,000 = people living in the United States (us.census.org)
  • 960,000 = population that calls farming their main source of income (epa.gov)
  • 2,300,000 - population of the US prisons (physorg.com)

You may be wondering why I put in the prison population - it's OK, everyone asks me. If you have a chance to look at the larger numbers and graphs, there is an alarming trend that as blue collar labor - like farming - decreases, the population of the prisons increases. Interesting, eh? Now I'm not saying that everyone out there needs to go get physical labor jobs. What I am saying is that our kids - yours and mine - need to realize what a true hard day's labor really entails. Getting their hands dirty, breaking a sweat are actually good things. And I really do believe that most parents agree.

Here are some more statistics on farming:

  • In 1935, the number of farms in the US peaked at 6.8 million as the population edged over 127 million citizens.
  • In 1997 (62 years later), a mere 46,000 of the 2,000,000 farms in this country accounted for 50% of the sales of agricultural products. (USDA, 1997 Census of Agriculture Data).
  • Less than 1% of our population claims farming as an occupation. 
  • It has been estimated that living expenses for the average farm family exceeds $47,000 per year.
  • Fewer than 1 in 4 of the farms this country produce gross revenues in excess of $50,000.
  • The vast majority of farms in this country (90%) are owned and operated by individuals or families. 
The interesting thing about these numbers shows how many of the farms today would be labeled as either hobby farms or are farms where there is a second income providing for the family. For the average farm family to live on $47K a year with gross receipts of only $50K does not provide for our farmers most basic needs.

As the US farm population has continued to dwindle, the average age of farmers continues to rise. In fact, about 40% of the farmers in this country are 55 years old and older (Bureau of Labor Statistics). The graying of the farm population has led to concerns about the long-term health of family farms as an American institution.

So what can we all do? Buy from your local farms. Yes, sometimes it actually does cost more. For the most part though, you are buying what I call real food from real people. Not that large farms are not producing real food - gosh we have to have the big guys in Mexico, California and the mid-west to provide for our country's food demands. But buying from the small farm, helps keep the family farms alive. And hopefully the food you are buying from them is amazing. We know that we truly strive to grow the best possible food for our family and friends - we can't even imagine selling something that was less than top quality. We can taste the difference, both in the food we grow, as well as that food we buy from other local farms. Hopefully, the next generation will not be raised in poverty and will choose to continue on for another generation of farming.
Personally, I think that is a huge reason why we are not getting many 2nd or 3rd generations continuing to farm - they were raised in near poverty levels (or below), watched their parents scrimp and save their pennies to provide and still have to sell off major stakes to the conglomerates in order just to survive. If you were raised that way, would you be jumping up and down, saying, "Please, please let me have the family farm"?

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