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April 2018, Volume 24, Number 2

US Ag: Farms

Falling prices for corn, wheat and other commodities reduced net farm income to $66 billion in 2018, a sharp drop from the record $115 billion in 2013. More farmers are taking off-farm jobs to supplement their income, so that over 80 percent of farm income is expected to come from off-farm sources in 2018, up from 50 percent in 1960.

US farm sales are expected to be $365 billion in 2018, including 53 percent from crops and 47 percent from livestock. USDA projects slightly rising farm sales and the crop share of farm sales rising to 57 percent of $392 billion in 2027.

Sales of fruits, nuts and vegetables including potatoes are projected to be $52 billion in 2018, over a quarter of crop sales of $192 billion. A third of FVH sales, $17 billion, are non-citrus fruits, followed by $12 billion for fresh vegetables and $9.5 billion for tree nuts. The value of citrus fruits and potatoes are similar, about $4 billion each.

The US has had an agricultural trade surplus since 1960, as US farmers feed the world with corn, grains and meat while US consumers access tropical fruit and many items not produced in the US, such as coffee. The US exported $140 billion worth of farm commodities in 2017, including half that were consumer-oriented meat and nuts rather than bulk corn and soybeans.

Farms. US farms are becoming fewer and larger: 30,000 to 80,000 US farms account for most farm output. Only 30,000 farms harvested 2,000 or more acres of cropland in 2012; 79,000 sold $1 million or more worth of farm commodities; and 68,000 had gross cash farm income of $1 million or more.

The midpoint acreage of apple farms was 180 in 2012, meaning that half of apple acreage was on farms with more than 180 acres and half was on farms with less than 180 acres. The midpoint acreage of grape farms was 420, of orange farms 960, of almonds 550, and of strawberries 180. The midpoint acreage for broccoli, carrots and potatoes was 1,050 acres; for lettuce 1,275 acres; and for cauliflower and cucumber farms 425 and 450 acres, respectively.

Most of the very large farms with sales of $10 million or more in 2012 were specialty crop farms, 32 percent; followed by 24 percent dairies; 13 percent feed lots; 11 percent poultry and eggs; and seven percent hogs. Almost all very large farms reported hired and contract labor.

Some 10,600 specialty crop farms and 27,000 cash grain farms had gross farm income of $1 million or more in 2015. These large farms accounted for 40 and 13 percent of the labor on such farms in 2015, including family labor.

A sixth of farm sales in 2015 were FVH crops. However, 35 percent of the sales from farms with more than $5 million in sales were from FVH crops. Almost half of total FVH sales in 2015 were from farms with sales of more than $5 million.

USDA's ARMS survey records hours worked by type of worker and farm sales. In 2015, 90 percent of US farms had gross cash income of less than $350,000. Their operators had a mean and median of less than 2,000 hours of work on their farms, including a sixth that was provided by hired workers. At the other end of the size spectrum, 7,400 farms had gross cash income of $5 million or more, and these large farms had a median 18 and mean 53 FTE jobs; hired and contract workers contributed 92 percent of their hours worked.

Most corn and soybean seeds are genetically modified to withstand weed killers. Monsanto, BASF and DuPont produce the GMO seeds, and they warned farmers not to apply the weed killer dicamba when winds are more than 10 mph to avoid having dicamba drift into fields of conventional crops. The seed companies are under fire because some weeds are becoming resistant to another weed killer, glyphosate.

The price of wool collapsed in the mid-1990s, encouraging many sheep farms in Australia and New Zealand to convert to dairy or other crops. However, merino wool has become very popular, including in Allbirds sneakers, and its price rose from $9 a kilo in 2016 to $14 a kilo in early 2018.

Australia-based Agersens aims to sell $150 collars for animals that are substitutes for fences, with cattle guided by sound and electric shocks rather then held in particular areas with fences. The collars provide information on the animal's health as well. Globally, there are about 1.5 billion cattle, 1.2 billion sheep, and a billion goats that could eventually be fitted with collars.

New Zealand farmers may use the Recognized Seasonal Employer (RSE) program to recruit seasonal workers in Pacific Islands; some 10,500 workers arrived in 2017-18. RSE workers are paid more than New Zealand's $15.75 an hour minimum wage, and employers pay part of RSE worker travel costs, provide housing, and are subject to NZ$5,000 fines if their RSE workers do not return home at the end of their contracts.

Agrihoods are planned communities with vegetable gardens and fruit trees for local residents. Gardens can be communal or individual, and are often farmed by non-residents in affluent neighborhoods. Chefs may prepare dinners using local produce for residents. The Urban Land Institute says there are 70 agrihoods across the US, emphasizing local produce and green living and offering homes that sell for $500,000 or more. Many charge membership fees to cover the cost of farming.

One New York agrihood offers to plant a 20-by-30-foot garden on the owner's land and water and weed for three months for $15,000.