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147 7 7. Farming in the Twenty-first Century Status and Challenges It is impossible to calculate the exact number of farms and farmers presently in the United States. Since 1974 the Department of Agriculture has defined a farm not by acreage but by the volume of sales.The production of agricultural goods that sell for $1,000, or would normally sell for that amount, qualifies an operation as a farm. In 1999 it added a few categories that do not meet this criterion: horse farms with five or more horses, even if sales did not amount to $1,000, and farms producing maple syrup or short-rotation woody crops.A farm census is taken every five years, and in 1997 the responsibility for this survey moved from the Census Bureau to the National Agricultural Statistics Service in the Department of Agriculture.The last farm census for which statistics are available was in 2002 and involved not only the survey of farmers but also sophisticated sampling tests to make up for the inevitable undercount.This revealed a total of 2,128,982 farms. Note that in any given year, some small farms will move out of this class because of low sales, while others will cross the $1,000 threshold.1 Profile of Contemporary Farms Agriculture is, by far, our least diverse economic sector in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender. More than 97 percent of principal farm operators 148 A Revolution Down on the Farm are white, and just over 90 percent are male, although women make up a much larger share of nonprincipal or secondary operators. African Americans, once so critical to southern agriculture, have almost completely deserted farming. Only 29,090 are principal operators, meaning either owners or tenants. Farm operators are older than individuals in most occupations: principal operators average 55.3 years of age, with an older average in the small farm categories.The trend is for the average age of farmers to increase in the next few decades, in part because entry into farming is so difficult for young people. The average number of people in each farm household is just over two, or close to the national average. Finally—and I must emphasize this point to skeptical readers—almost all farms are owned by families (this includes extended families, in the sense that a father and son, with two households, may jointly own a farm), not by corporations that are not owned by members of a family. In 2002 only 7,661 farms were primarily owned (more than 50 percent of the stock) by nonfamily investors, and these accounted for only 9,319,000 acres out of a total of 938 million acres, or only 1 percent of the total. It is true that these corporate farms are much larger than average, as are the more numerous (66,667) incorporated farms owned by families.2 (See table 1.) But family ownership does not necessarily correlate with what most people mean when they refer to family farms. Of course, no one definition of a family farm would please everyone, particularly among those who farm and believe themselves to be “family” farmers. Some traditional criteria associated with the much revered family farmer fit only a small minority of those who operateAmerican farms.The following are among the most prevalent criteria: that a family owns, lives on, and works on a farm; gains most of its livelihood from farming; and, perhaps most critical , makes all the important decisions about the farming operation.This managerial independence has supported most images, or myths, about farmers as responsible citizens.According to these criteria, most officially listed American farms are not family farms. On a majority of these farms, the operator does not gain even half of his or her income from farming. Nearly a fourth do not live on farms. And even among full-time farm operators, some of the largest and wealthiest farmers do not have full managerial control. This includes most of the factory-like chicken and hog farms that are under contracts to large corporations. Finally, many very large family-owned and -operated farms, such as a California dairy farm with more than 1,500 cows and a dozen or more employees, seem more like urban business enterprises than traditional farms. (continued) Table 1. Historical Highlights: 2002 and Earlier Census Years (2002 Farm Census) All farms 2002 1997 Not adjusted for coverage 1997 1992 1987 1982 1978 1974 Farms (number) 2,128,982 2,215,876...


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