Where Have All the Farmers Gone?

The 2012 Census of Agriculture reported the existence of 9,071 farms in the Garden State. Since the previous 2007 Census had reported 10,327 farms, some in the ag community were quick to express concern over what the decline in NJ farm numbers meant, if anything.

Farmer-SHitchner-2006However, in thinking about farm numbers and the farm economy, accepting the 2007 USDA Census data at face value might be a mistake.

 
In 2007, USDA policy leadership and Congressional policy advocates wanted to portray the USA as a nation with rising numbers of small farms, urban and urban fringe farms, and farms operated by non-traditional operators. The Farm Bill policy campaign was called, “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” and its laudable goal was to connect people with local nutritious food and farmers who raise it. In an ever-consolidating, large-farm global marketplace, officials wanted to elevate economically viable local food system career opportunities and community development for young people. What better method than by manipulating Census reporting to reveal a rising number of small farm opportunities?

We can infer this by looking at a summary of NJ farm statistics in Table 1. The 2007 Census result revealed a strange –and likely one time– increase in farm numbers (together with an unusual decrease in farm size) within a consistent long term trend of declining farm numbers. So, the greater likelihood is not that the 2012 Census revealed a decline of 1,256 NJ farms. Rather in 2007, to advance political policy goals, the USDA National Ag Statistics Service (NASS) enumerators over-counted and over-reported farms that in previous Census periods would have been ignored as non-commercial hobby farms, retirement farms, or amenity farms with less than $1,000 in revenues.

Table 1. NJ farm number trends, total value of products sold, average sales per farm,
and average farm size across four Census periods (15 years, 1997 to 2012).
Census Year NJ Farm Numbers Market Value of
NJ Ag Products
Average Sales
per Farm
Average Farm Size,
in Acres
2012 9,071 $1,006,936,000 $111,006 79
2007 10,327 ? $986,885,000 $95,564 71 ?
2002 9,924 $749,870,000 $75,561 81
1997 10,045 $707,161,000 $70,399 85

 

There are two important positives revealed by the data:
  • Overall NJ farm gate ag revenues continue to climb, surpassing $1 billion for the first time. Farmers are a core part of community economic landscapes with about 86 percent of farmers’ revenues plowed right back into other peoples’ businesses: fuel, insurance, labor, equipment, seed and supplies, irrigation, consulting, and accounting. Farmers’ revenue streams are rivers to businesses in their communities. Communities need farmers and farmers need their communities to support them.
  • Notably, average revenues per NJ farm continued to increase, surpassing $111,000 for the first time. If you’re a farmer, and if the trend of your sales is not increasing, you’re subject to long-term erosion in combating the impacts of price inflation on your input costs, aka the “cost-price squeeze” of agriculture. Increasing revenues counter the squeeze.

New Jersey is doing better than many states in retaining commercial farms. For most of the 20th century, declining farm numbers across the nation averaged about 2 to 3 percent per year, compounded over decades. If New Jersey had been losing farms at a 2 percent rate since 1997, the expected number of Garden State farms in 2012 would be 7,570, not 9,071. Despite high tax, high cost, and high regulatory burdens, hard working New Jersey farmers are surviving. This implies that our retention policies are making an impact.

For a more complete analysis of the New Jersey ag sector, and how it fits into the broader food system, see:
Schilling, B. and Sullivan, K. (2016). The Economic Importance of New Jersey’s Food System in 2012. [Bulletin]. Rutgers NJAES.

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