Minnesota farms make a large, diverse “community”

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There are at least 257,732 people living and working on Minnesota farms. If all people residing on farms were counted, Minnesota’s “farm” population would be larger than St. Paul’s and pressing Minneapolis’.

This is among information that can be gleaned from the five-year U.S. Census of Agriculture, conducted in 2007, that was released Feb. 4. Most of the data are geared to economic understanding of agriculture and farms. As a result, the Census of Agriculture offers a wealth of information more concerned with counting farm units, acres, cattle, turkeys and pigs than actually counting people – a job for the U.S. Census Bureau every 10 years.

The population is spread over 80,992 farms, a gain of 153 from the 2002 census. Together, these farms produced a whopping $13.2 billion in agricultural production in 2007, up from $8.5 billion in 2002. But half of the total number of farms had less than $10,000 a year in sales of animals and produce; 30,678 of the farms had less than $2,500 in sales.

On the other end of the spectrum, 2,791 Minnesota farms had more than $1 million in annual farm revenue in 2007. The big are getting bigger, but Minnesota is again gaining farms and farm population with small-scale operators keeping people on the land, diversifying our food supplies and combining agriculture and a desired way of life with other income.

Not bad data considering the business consolidations and economic stress that confronts most working Americans these days.

Still, there is little about the modern Minnesota farm that reflects the mythological image of when Grandpa and Grandma ran the “home place.” Only 39,628 farm operators today list farming as their principal occupation, down from about 50,000 five years earlier, and the growth in small farms almost certainly means this trend will continue.

Among farm growth is in organic agriculture. Data weren’t collected five years ago, but 2007 census takers found 636 organic farms and nearly 100,000 acres dedicated to organic production. While still small, this is known to be the fastest growing sector in American agriculture.

Another measure of change in Minnesota agriculture is farm ownership. The 2007 census found 51,425 farm operators listing themselves as full owners; 24,394 operators are listed as part-owners. Again using the Twin Cities as a focal point, rare is the city dweller who doesn’t know someone who talks about going to “the farm” on weekends like other neighbors talk about going to “the lake.”

All this represents change. The public should understand it, and policy and law makers should recognize it.

Data Deserve Study
Material gathered in the five-year Census reveals changes in size and shape of what we call “farms.” Any farm unit that has at least $1,000 in annual sales from agricultural production is defined as a farm. This should have farm groups, rural policy planners, lawmakers and state officials all grabbing pencils and pushing paper to appraise what we are doing farm-related policy and what might be changed or made more cost effective.

Two conclusions are easy to reach.

First, there should be public recognition that federal farm programs support commodity production and are tilted to large farm operations. Indeed, federal programs are partly if not largely responsible for the “get bigger or get out” transformation occurring in land ownership.

Second, Minnesota state agriculture programs are far more “size neutral,” if we may coin such a phrase. These programs serve the general public from animal health to food safety, and they serve the farm and food industries by helping farmers explore niche markets and help link consumers with producers through farmers’ markets, direct marketing and Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSA) links.

Such programs add to Minnesota’s great cornucopia and make life here in Minnesota – the nation’s seventh largest agricultural state – more fun, diverse and rewarding for all of us. What’s more, these programs actually encourage people to live and work on the farm. Never mind that production might be small and represents only partial household income. The category of really small farmers is the counterweight to the increases in large land holdings found in the Census.

Take a walk up and down Main Street in any Minnesota community outside the I-694 / I-494 beltway. Talk to local merchants and school officials. It becomes obvious that farm people, not farm acreage, support local commerce and institutions.

At a time when all state budgets and programs are under careful scrutiny, seemingly small programs at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture should be evaluated against the Census findings. We really are getting great bang for the buck

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