March 31, 2013

Farm census is starting to show 'new ag' growth

Last month, I completed a ritual done every five years: the farm census.

Last month, I completed a ritual done every five years: the farm census.

But this isn't my father's or grandfather's census. This one may have a new audience and they're not farmers. Foodies and the food community have their fingerprints on this document. The farm census contains a hint of what may come: a new urban and public interest in agriculture.

The faces of both "big ag" and "new ag" are reflected on these pages. Beyond the dirt and dust of our farms, city folks are more than ever part of a new agriculture. We are gradually entering a new political world where policies like the farm bill are no longer just conversations in rural coffee shops or corporate offices of giant agricultural companies.

In years ending in 7 and 2 – such as 2007 and 2012 – the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts a data and information gathering process, asking farmers about their operations. The theme for 2012, "Your Voice, Your Future, Your Responsibility" urges all farmers to comply. This is the "season to be counted."

The farm census began 150 years ago with a complete count of every farm and ranch in the United States. It was the only source of valid information for the industry and government programs. For decades, only the ag community paid attention to the pages of data about acres farmed or leased, land that was cropland or pasture, earth that was irrigated or dry farmed. Specific information for each type of farm or ranch was solicited, acres harvested, quantity harvested, and value of sales – animals from cattle to cows, hogs to goats, aquaculture to poultry were counted, now even along with bees and Christmas trees. Other sections ask about farm labor and production costs, specifically fertilizers or chemicals.

By law, I have an obligation to fill out this form. Typically I race through the 24 pages. Many of the questions are not applicable to our farm; I don't make maple syrup nor grow mushrooms.

But the final five pages caught my attention. The questions represent a shift away from the standard inquiry about production and volume.

Organic agriculture had its own section, along with an energy section asking about renewable producing systems. One remarkable question asked about value-added crops and another query sought information about community supported agriculture, or CSA. And a final section explored direct sales for human consumption.

While still small, organic farm sales account for more than $28 billion, according to Organic Trade Association latest estimates, and comprise 4 percent of all food sales. We organic farmers may be small players in the world of industrial agriculture, but our growth rate is one of the fastest sectors in all of agriculture.

Organic farming data were first gathered in the 2007 census as a special supplemental survey and now can be examined over time. Before, no one knew exact numbers. Anecdotal stories from a small and often ignored sector will have clarity and perhaps newfound legitimacy.

Likewise, data about the buy- local movement that's reflected in direct sales – including food from farmers markets, roadside stands and community-supported agriculture – will now be identified. The 2012 census also specifically asks about value-added products, including jams, preserves, cider and wine. Even though less than 1 percent of food sales, this seemingly small and insignificant sector contributes to a new farming culture with a direct interface with the public.

Consider that Apple controls only 11 percent of the computer market, yet it's viewed as the leader in design and innovation that ripples through all of the high-tech industry. The organic, buy local and direct sales of farm products may lead the charge with new and innovative changes in how food is grown, marketed and consumed. The public has a new stake in our nation's food, and "new ag" is discovering ways to connect with the public.

For example, in California, a new wave of small but perhaps significant growth will unfold with the passage of the Cottage Food Act. This new category of food production allows smaller operations to work out of a home kitchen, so long as the products are not potentially hazardous. This includes pies, preserves, candy and baked goods. Our state will create a new generation of food entrepreneurs directly connecting thousands of growers and farmers with a food-loving consumer.

Already, shifts have occurred nationwide since the 2007 farm census. Who would have imagined Iowa to have the second-most CSAs in the nation? Or Kentucky to be among the leaders in value-added commodities (could it be linked to a growing craft bourbon industry?) Could the "good food" movement trickle upward to affect all of the agricultural food industry?

As I send in my 2012 farm census, a new audience awaits beyond the traditional number crunchers and policy wonks. The census will count a new face of agriculture that responds to a surging public interest in food.

The 3 million farmers in America are about 1 percent of the population. The "new ag" represented in the census totals only 1 percent – but perhaps we can be that 1 percent that changes what a nation eats.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and award-winning author of books including "Epitaph for a Peach" and "Wisdom of the Last Farmer."

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