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Published March 03, 2014, 09:36 AM

Definition of "farm" complicates ag census data

To anyone involved with Upper Midwest agriculture, the growing size and declining number of area farms is a truism.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

A truism is a self-evident claim, something so obvious that its truth can’t be questioned.

To anyone involved with Upper Midwest agriculture, the growing size and declining number of area farms is a truism. Farms have gotten bigger and fewer for so long that it’s a fact of life, at least for people familiar with agriculture.

North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota all have less than half as many farms as they did in 1945. The average size of farms in the three states has more than doubled in the same period, too.

Montana farms are getting bigger and fewer, too, although the change isn’t quite as pronounced. Many of Montana’s farm operations started out big (a reflection of the state’s terrain and climate, which generally aren’t conducive to small-scale farms and ranches).

So the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recently released 2012 Census of Agriculture won’t surprise area agriculturalists. The census, conducted every five years, shows Upper Midwest farms overall becoming bigger and fewer since the 2007 census, continuing the decades-long trend.

Bigger farms have several advantages, including better access to capital and greater ability to buy expensive, technologically advanced equipment.

To a lot of folks, having bigger and fewer farms is bad. They say it means fewer farm families and hurts farm towns.

To other folks, having bigger and fewer farms is good, or at least value-neutral. They say it increases efficiency and strengthens the ag economy.

Both sides raise some valid points. Personally, I’ll go with the economic-reality-requires-farms-to-get-bigger school of thought.

Poor definition

The 2012 census also shows that the number of very small farms is growing in the Upper Midwest. That’s not a surprise, either. So-called hobby farms are an enjoyable sideline for folks who earn their living off the farm and don’t have an opportunity to farm full time.

Trouble is, USDA, for purposes of the census, defines a farm as an entity with sales of $1,000 or more, or the potential for such sales, in the census year.

Don’t take this the wrong way. The census is a valuable resource, and I appreciate the efforts of everyone who works on it. But the definition of a farm needs fine-tuning. A measly $1,000 in annual sales? If you keep a few cows and sell a calf or two, you generate enough income to be classified as a farmer.

I’m not knocking USDA or the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the USDA agency that prepares the census. It’s the definition Congress uses, so USDA uses it, too. Nor am I knocking folks with very small farms; I respect what they’re doing. I’m just saying a more realistic definition is needed.

2 questions

The 2012 census is a snapshot. It captures a moment in time; it doesn’t prophesy about what comes next. So it can’t provide answers to these two questions:

• Will the decades-long decline in farms big enough to support a family end anytime soon? (I strongly doubt it.)

• Whatever the answers, the 2017 census will help provide them.