Columnist Claire Morenon: The view from the national Agricultural Census

Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 28, 2019

Farmers across the nation are facing real challenges, including increasingly uncertain weather patterns due to climate change and the financial pressures of global competition.

Sometimes, our understanding of these trends comes primarily from anecdotes, but every five years, the national Census of Agriculture gives us the statistical view.

The Census of Agriculture is a behemoth of a study that aims to capture data from farms across the country, and which provides insights down to the county level in each state. The 2017 Census was released in April, which provides an opportunity to take a big-picture look at agriculture in the country and our local region.

Massachusetts agriculture is distinct; for starters, farms in the commonwealth don’t produce the commodity crops or industrially-produced livestock that typifies United States agriculture. The average size of a Massachusetts farm is only 86 acres, compared to the national average of 441 acres. It follows, then, that average annual farm sales are lower, at $67,227 versus $194,892, but Massachusetts farmers make the most of their small size: sales per acre average $781 in Massachusetts, as opposed to a national average of $441.

Farmers here sell more of their products directly to our local communities: Massachusetts ranks third in the nation for average direct-to-consumer sales per farm, and direct sales account for the highest proportion of total sales in the country. This is visible in the many bustling farmers’ markets, farm stands, and community supported agriculture programs in our region.

These differences can be attributed to two primary factors. First, farms are small, but must be highly economically productive because the cost of land in Massachusetts is among the highest in the nation (other costs, from labor to tractor repair, are higher too). Second, farms in Massachusetts are close to major population centers, so farmers have direct access to markets.

Farms across the nation have lost ground in recent years, and Massachusetts farms are no exception. Farm acreage dropped 2 percent nationwide, and 6 percent in Massachusetts, since the 2012 Ag Census. Average sales per farm fell by 5 percent nationally, and by 3 percent in the commonwealth.

Dairy farmers have been hit especially hard in recent years. Nationally, 10,220 dairy farms shuttered between 2012 and 2017, which represents a loss of 20 percent. Here in Massachusetts, it’s 21 percent.

The 2017 Ag Census highlights the reality that our local food system, and the condition of local farms, doesn’t function independently of the larger world. Even as agriculture here takes its own Massachusetts-specific shape, farmers in our region face many of the same challenges as their peers throughout the nation. Climate change and damaging weather patterns, our nation’s failure to create an immigration policy that recognizes agriculture’s heavy reliance on immigrant workers, and brutally competitive markets have squeezed small- and medium-sized farms everywhere.

And yet, the census also provides glimmers of optimism and important insights into the way forward. The Valley, which has the nation’s longest-running consumer-support campaign in the form of CISA’s “Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown” effort, saw growth in average farm sales and lower losses along other important metrics than the rest of the state. This indicates that our region’s deep-seated support for local agriculture makes a real difference in the well-being of local farms.

Another bright spot is the explosive growth in renewable energy on farms. In Massachusetts, just shy of 20 percent of farms now have solar panels or other sources of renewable energy, an increase of 209 percent since 2012. Nationally, the number of farms with renewable energy sources has increased 132 percent over five years.

As we absorb the lessons of the 2017 Census, here’s a vision for what we want to see reflected by the next census in 2022: an agricultural land base that is stable and growing, with farms that have built resilience in the face of climate change.

Farm sales that reflect enthusiastic consumer support for local farms, and which can provide a good living for all the people who grow our food.

Pathways to farm ownership and management for new and beginning farmers that address both racial disparities and the immigration policies that disqualify many farm workers from ownership.

This vision can’t be fully realized without big-picture problem-solving on a federal level, but it also rests on local action and creative local solutions to strengthen farms and our whole local food system. Our region has benefited from decades of this work, and we’re fortunate to have farmers and advocates, including CISA, committed to it through 2022 and beyond.

Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).