Vilsack: For Farmers, 2010 Was a Very Good Year
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was on NPR’s Weekend Edition recently, talking about how agriculture fared in 2010 and what’s on his mind as work begins on the 2012 Farm Bill.
Speaking with host Liane Hansen, Vilsack said 2010 saw a 34% increase in net farm income, thanks largely to exports of American soybeans, corn, wheat, hogs, and poultry. Unlike the rest of US global trade, where we import more than we export, Vilsack said, agriculture exports will probably exceed imports by some $14 billion. Each billion dollars of farm product sales generates between 8,000 and 9,000 jobs, he said. So farm prosperity also benefits workers in other sectors.
Hansen seemed dubious. She pointed out that many farmers are struggling, what with the past year’s bad weather and a tough economy. She asked Vilsack if his view for 2011 is as rosy.
Pressed this way, Vilsack answered by dividing the 2.2 million people engaged in agriculture into three segments. About 1.3 million are what he termed “hobby farmers.” They may sell at a farmers market; they may sell more than $1,000 worth of produce, which means they meet USDA’s definition of a farmer. They don’t really make any money at farming, although, if the family has other income, their farm results may give them a tax write-off.
Then there are another 600,000 people whose farm sales total less than $250,000 – the mid-sized operations, Vilsack called them.
They are the folks who struggle. They are the folks who need off-farm income…They struggle and USDA has to be there to help them.
It turns out that when Vilsack spoke of agriculture’s very good year, he was thinking of the
roughly 300,000 folks who basically produce 85% of what we consume and what we export. They did pretty well in this economy. And we need to continue to focus on them, because they produce most of what we consume and they’re also the ones who are generating the exports that, in turn, generate the jobs.
Turning to the 2012 Farm Bill, Vilsack said one thing that should be addressed how many people will be able to continue farming, and how to replace those retire or die.
Over 30 percent of our farmers are over the age of 65. The average age of the farmer in America is 57 today. We had a 30 percent increase in the number of farmers over the age of 75 and a 20 percent decrease in the number of farmers under the age of 25.
Farming is a capital-intensive business that requires access to a great deal of credit, Vilsack said. One focus of the Farm Bill has to be making sure that young people have the incentives and opportunity to get into the business, that they have access to markets and assistance in marketing. He was thinking, he said, of commercial farmers, but also of the small and and mid-sized operations.