Time to uproot some perennial farming myths


As California descends further into its worst drought in recorded history, Golden Staters are looking for someone to blame. Many city-dwellers have pointed fingers at the state’s farmers and ranchers.

But they’re blaming the victims. As Governor Jerry Brown put it, “[a]gricultural water users… have borne much of the brunt of the drought to date… with significantly reduced water allocations and thousands of farm workers laid off.”

This misconception is only the latest in a long history of myths about American agriculture. It’s time to plow under these myths and plant some seeds of truth about our nation’s farmers.

Myth: Big corporations have taken over the industry.

The idea that most farms today are run by big business is a head scratcher. Data from the Census Bureau show that 97 percent of the 2.1 million farms in operation in the United States are family owned. In total, 88 percent are small family farms.

Myth: All farmers are rich.

Data from the USDA show that farm households make roughly the same income as the median American household. But that money mostly comes from off-farm sources — such as a second job, Social Security, investment income and the like. The USDA reports that 70 percent of farm families have a second job. Clearly, these farmers are farming because they like the work, not because it’s fattening their bank accounts.

Myth: Farmers don’t care about the environment.

No other industry on the planet depends more on a clean, sustainable environment than farming.

Farmers today are producing more with less. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, farmers produce 262 percent more food with 2 percent fewer inputs — such as energy, seeds, fertilizer, feed — compared with 1950.

Farmers have also cut back drastically on chemicals. Between 1980 and 2007, they reduced their use of pesticides by 20 percent.

Myth: Food costs too much.

By any measure, food today is less expensive in America than ever before, thanks largely to the incredible increase in farm productivity over the years. As a result, American families spend a smaller share of their income on food — just 6.7 percent — than families in any other country in the world. By comparison, families in France and Japan devote roughly 14 percent of their income to food.

Myth: Farming is in decline.

Even though farming represents a small share of the job market, the farming industry remains a significant share of the economy. Agriculture and agriculture-related industries accounted for $776 billion in GDP in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farm productivity has nearly doubled since 1980.

This economic strength is particularly important in America’s rural communities. There, farming has been a crucial job creator, providing steady employment during the recession and creating new jobs in the years since.

What’s more, U.S. agriculture is only going to grow. By 2023, agriculture exports are projected to be close to $175 billion, a roughly 25 percent increase from last year’s numbers.

That’s a future we can all benefit from. But to get there, farmers and ranchers need a little support — in their home states and in Congress. And that support starts with a better understanding of who these Americans really are.

Today’s farmers are producing more with less, making food more affordable, helping to protect the environment, and providing crucial jobs for rural communities. And they’re doing it out of a love of farming.

That’s a pretty good story to tell. And it’s one that just happens to be true.

Tim Buzby is the president and chief executive officer of Farmer Mac.