Small Farms Might Not Be Spreading After All

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Many of us have been heartened to learn that the number of small farms in the U.S. is increasing for the first time in a century. The latest Census of Agriculture reports more small farms in 2007 than in 2002.

But the USDA, which tracks such things in reports such as the recent "Small Farms in the United States: Persistence Under Pressure," offers a less optimistic message.

According to the authors of that report, defining a small farm is not so easy to do. As they explain:

USDA defines a small farm as an operation with gross cash farm income under $250,000. Within that group are commercial and noncommercial farms. The number of small commercial farms—with sales of $10,000 to $250,000—actually fell between 2002 and 2007...

In fact, all of the growth occurred among farms under $1,000 in sales ... Most of these operations are better described as rural residences; the households on these farms—and on many other small farms—rely heavily on off-farm income.

Although most (91 percent) of U.S. farms are small, farms earning $250,000 and above account for 85 percent of the market value of agricultural production.

I'm surprised by these figures and wonder whether the USDA data capture the young farmers I keep hearing about who are producing for farmers' markets and CSAs. The ones I meet tell me they are making a living. If so, I hope that means they are doing better than $1,000 per year. If not, we need the USDA to work with them to make sure they do. Small farms grow food, not feed. We need more of them.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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