USDA Census (Part I): Small Farms on the Rise in America

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Part I of a two-part series on the USDA farm census

The U.S. Department of Agriculture just published its latest census of the nation’s agricultural sector, and it included some strikingly good news. The number of farms, particularly small farms, is increasing, reversing a decades-long trend lamented by agrarian writer Wendell Berry as “The Unsettling of America.”

The census, conducted every five years, showed a sizable jump in the total number of farms—2,204,792 farms in all, 4 percent more than in 2002. It also found a sharp up-tick in the number of micro-farms, those with sales of less than $1,000—from 580,000 to close to 700,000. Farms that small are not chiefly commercial enterprises. They typically feed their owners, and perhaps contribute on a very small scale to local markets.

While this year’s survey made a greater effort to count small farms, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack observed: “I don’t think it’s just a statistical anomaly that smaller farms have increased in number.” He said much of the growth was likely the result of efforts to promote organic farming and improve per-acre productivity.

Indeed, the sector with the largest growth in percentage and absolute terms was farms with less than 50 acres.

But wait, you say: “What does that have to do with global warming or containing emissions?”

More small farms in America means more locally produced food, which means less petroleum burned transporting food across the country or around the world.

A Cornell University study notes that a “simple but radical reduction in transport distance” would save great amounts of energy; for example, “transporting strawberries from California to New York by air requires 100 kcal of oil per kcal of strawberry imported.”

When food is grown on the same farm where it is eaten, carbon emissions drop drastically. According to an Iowa State University study assessing the distance conventional food traveled relative to locally produced food, researchers found disparities of between 8 and 92 times the total “food miles” per item.

That’s not all. University of California, Berkeley-based ecologist Miguel Altieri observes that small farms sequester carbon in the soil more effectively than large farms do. In fact, “industrial agriculture contributes directly to climate change”—while small farms reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

The Rodale Institute, in a landmark study assessing carbon sequestration in soil, postulates, “If 7,000 lb/CO2/acre/year sequestration rate was achieved on all 434 million acres of cropland in the United States, nearly 1.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide would be sequestered per year, mitigating close to one quarter of the country’s total fossil fuel emissions.” Imagine! Reaching the Kyoto targets in one fell swoop.

Those are not the only benefits. Small farms on a per-hectare basis produce far more dollar income and crops than large farms. According to an extensive study by Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, small farms are between 200 and 1000 percent more productive than large agro-plantations. In the United States, farms smaller than 27 acres have ten times the dollar output per acre than large farms.

As agronomist Peter Rosset, the institute’s former executive director, continues, “this is largely because smaller farms tend to specialize in high value crops like vegetables and flowers, it also reflects relatively more attention devoted to the farm, and more diverse farming systems.”

Undoubtedly a good thing, and buttressed by Vilsack’s recent comments at the ground-breaking of The People’s Garden at USDA headquarters that “President Obama has expressed his commitment to responsible stewardship of our land, water and other natural resources.”

The census wasn’t entirely positive, though. While the number of small farms is increasing, food production is concentrating. In 2002, 144,000 farms produced 70 percent of the nation’s food. Today, 125,000 farms do so—about 6 percent of the total number of farms.

That means Americans are still overwhelmingly eating food produced in massive industrial farms.

And that is undoubtedly a bad thing—which means that policies should be seriously re-jiggered to promote small organic farms, if policy-makers wish to reduce emissions.

Why? We’ll talk about that tomorrow in Part II.