Category Archives: farm statistics

The Earth’s Land Use (Cover) Breakdown from the FAO

The FAO has released a new database that summarizes land cover on our lovely planet, drawing from satellite and other types of data resources. Combining the sources of information available to us today in this way has never been done before and will help aid in assessing the future of food production and its sustainability. The database is called “Global Land Cover SHARE database”.

Next, is the general category breakdown from the report. It looks like we’ve paved over .6 percent of the Earth’s land surface. That is quite an Anthropocene feat.

The FAO’s new database includes eleven global land cover layers, and here are the percentages allocated to each one:

artificial surfaces (which cover 0.6 percent of the Earth’s surface)
bare soils (15.2 percent)
croplands (12.6 percent)
grasslands (13.0 percent)
herbaceous vegetation (1.3 percent)
inland water bodies (2.6 percent)
mangroves (0.1 percent)
shrub-covered areas (9.5 percent)
snow and glaciers (9.7 percent)
sparse vegetation (7.7 percent)
tree-covered areas (27.7 percent)


Smaller Farms Couldn’t Survive Without Off-Farm Income

Perhaps all small farms should be classified as hobby farms, because few could survive economically without off-farm incomes.

This is how the USDA sums it up:

● Median total household income among all farm households ($57,050) exceeded the median for all U.S. households ($50,054) in 2011.

● More than half of U.S. farms are very small, with annual sales under $10,000; the households operating these farms typically draw all of their income from off-farm sources.

● Median household income and income from farming increase with farm size, as defined by sales.

● The typical household operating the largest commercial farms earned about $380,000 in 2011, and most of that came from farming.

Certainly, these large farm incomes are dependent upon U.S. policy requiring taxpayer support. In my recent post about my observations from driving across Nebraska, I addressed the issue of long commutes by farm dwellers to their jobs and for their goods and services. With policy supporting the large farms, farms continue to get larger, so a side effect is that the fewer residents who remain in these rural communities have to commute further and further. It would seem that this is an unsustainable trend. I call this problem the human side of the equation, the part of the debate which is usually ignored by pundits and policy-makers.

3 Picks: Production Costs, Syrian Crisis, Australian Conundrum

Sydney Fish Market. Photo by Nathan Cooprider @Flickr CC.

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) Net U.S. farm income in 2013 will be $120.6 billion, up 6 percent from 2012: “Total farm production expenses will increase 0.3 percent from the USDA’s February estimate to $354.2 billion, the highest level on record, in nominal and inflation-adjusted dollars. The agency said it expects rent, labor and feed prices to increase the most among farm expenses this year. Among farmer costs, feed, the biggest spending component, is projected to increase 3.7 percent from last year to $61.3 billion. Fertilizers will cost $28.2 billion this year, down 1 percent from last year, while seeds are up 4.9 percent, to $21.3 billion. ‘It’s important to note that while income numbers are staying up at nice levels, production costs are continuing to climb and climb,’ Bob Young, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, said in a phone interview.”

2) Food Sellers are unwilling to sell to Syria: “Syria’s efforts to step up food purchases are being thwarted by sellers unwilling to risk delays in payments from frozen foreign bank accounts. Civil war and a deepening humanitarian crisis have prompted the government of President Bashar Assad to issue a series of tenders for sugar, wheat, flour and rice in recent weeks. The country needs to import around 2 million tons of wheat this year as civil war has sliced its crop to a near-30 year low at 1.5 million tons, less than half the pre-conflict average. State buyers said payment for purchases via tenders would be made from the government’s frozen accounts abroad with waivers obtained from countries that have imposed financial sanctions. But international traders are showing little enthusiasm for the proposed payment system. ‘This is too much of a big risk. The process of getting funds from the frozen accounts is too slow and complex to enable a rapid offer in a grain tender,’ one European trader told Reuters.”

3) Julian Cribb Gives Australians a Verbal Lashing About their food situation: “‘When I started reporting in agricultural journalism there were 19,000 dairy farmers in Australia, today there are less than 3000 and they’re still leaving, so how many are we going to have left in 20 years time?’ He says this decline, combined with the supermarkets increasing reliance on imported foods, is making Australia’s food supply increasingly insecure. ‘Between 1/4 and a 1/3 of our fresh fruits and vegetables are coming from overseas now and a lot of them are coming from China. It’s a crazy situation, the Chinese have got a food problem of their own but they’re exporting their food to Australia.’”

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.

Interesting Note: A very curious thing happened that I’d like to share. My Aug. 21st post, The Editors of Scientific American Take a Stance Against GMO Food Labeling, was one of the most popular ever, here on little b.p.a. Only recently have I added the social media buttons below posts, and that one quickly shot up to 257 facebooks, 13 Google 1+, 47 tweets, and 14 LinkedIns. I’m not sure when it happened, but Google News has removed it from their news index. This reduces its status and searchability, and I’d like to know why. One could speculate, but I’d rather have someone who knows way more than I do about this subject to weigh in. (Note that there is a difference between a Web search and a Google News search. The post obviously is still available by web search.)

The Days of Diversified Farms are Disappearing

Photo by Rachel Tayse Flickr CC.

Between about 1945 and 1970, U.S. farms became increasingly specialized. Chickens and milk cows were the first to go on farms here in America, followed by the loss of multiple row crops, cattle, and pigs. Today, the logical crop and livestock rotational systems of yesterday have been mostly abandoned.


The farmer who includes livestock in his or her operation has a 24/7 commitment. Monoculture farming, or specialization, offers a better lifestyle, along with the option to earn an off farm income. Crop and livestock technologies have emerged that have become farm methods of choice and government policies have helped to reinforce monoculture crops and the big getting bigger. Today, approximately 22 percent of farms produce only one crop, and 30 percent only two crops. Only eleven percent of crops are produced on farms that produce five or more crops.

Before we pass judgment, we must consider that every region is best suited for a certain kind of agricultural production by soil and weather conditions. Besides, we are all participating in an age of specialization.

Although the nostalgic diversified farm model has many merits, there is no one thing to blame for its demise.

Rural electrification in 1936 as part of the New Deal, along with advancing mechanization allowed farms to get larger, specialize, and expand their range of trade. Growing gardens, raising chickens for eggs and for meat, and milking cows on farms has gone the way of the manual typewriter. Now, our typing methods require electricity, and so do our factory milking operations, poultry meat production operations, and factory egg production operations.

It’s also about economics. Efficiency gains have continued to weed out the inefficient producer, whether that be for the production of beef, eggs, poultry, corn, wheat, or pork. Today’s producer is a global producer and has to compete on the global markets against producers in Brazil, Argentina, and everywhere else.

Usually becoming more efficient means becoming bigger, and that is why cropland farm sizes here in the U.S. have on average doubled over the last 20-25 years. This applies to producers across the board, whether they specialize in growing tomatoes, carrots, or corn.

Even so, the small farm is being revived in recent years, too, largely in response to consumer demand for local organic food. It reflects a values system backlash against the cheap food produced by the efficiency model. How ironic that youth can’t wait to leave the farm and get to the city, yet, the successful CEO who can afford to retire early often wants nothing more than to have his own small farm.

The consumption patterns of the rural producer have changed, too. As the rural areas have depopulated and farm families commute to work jobs off the farm, they buy their food at grocers like Walmart. Amazingly, many rural areas are now classified as food deserts, and the food miles traveled by food on the rural farm dinner table are often as far as on the urban one.

It’s an age old tale, it’s the American dream. Work a white collar job so you can afford to buy what the blue collar laborer produces for you. On the farm these days, increasingly, that blue collar laborer is an expensive machine or technology paid for by both policy and an economy of scale.


Most U.S. farms raised multiple species of livestock as late as 1960. As a result, most farms also raised corn to feed their animals. Since then, livestock production has become much more specialized, so that less than 5 percent of farms had chickens, hogs, or milk cows by 2010, and those purchase much of their feed. Many farms still raise beef cattle, usually in small cow-calf operations that require land for pasture but only modest labor commitments. Far fewer farms now grow corn, since they do not have herds of livestock, and corn production has concentrated on larger crop operations that grow corn along with 1 or 2 other crops, like soybeans, wheat, or alfalfa. (source: usda)


For more on how technology has led to structural changes in farming:

Texas and Montana Lost 3.7 Million Acres of “Land in Farms” Last Year

An annual USDA report which keeps tabs on the total amount of land being used for farming was released earlier this month. This year’s report revealed some large swings in acreage farmed from 2011 to 2012, primarily attributed to discontinued livestock ranching operations in the two states of Texas and Montana. Weather, water, drought, and high feed costs led to the loss of 3.7 million acres of land farmed in those two states.

In 2012, 3 million fewer acres were farmed, to total 914 million acres. That net number is a result of losses of 4.1 million acres in some states and gains of 1.1 million acres in other states. The states which gained farmland acres were Georgia, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

Farm numbers by category:

There are 2.2 million farms in the U.S. The USDA’s definition of a farm is “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the year”.

The total number of farms decreased by 11,630 last year and the average farm size increased by 1 acre, to 421 acres.

The largest economic farm size measured by the USDA are those with gross sales and/or government program payments totaling more than $500,000. This division increased in farm numbers by 8.6 percent last year, to a total of 145,190 farms. This is impressive in light of the year’s extreme drought conditions.

In contrast to a growth in the farms in the highest income category in 2012, the smallest economic farm classification — defined by $1,000 to $9,999 in sales, decreased in number by 2.5 percent last year to a total of 1,172,200 farms.

The other three economic farm categories all increased in number slightly in 2012.

Farmland Owned According to Income Category:

The amount of land farmed by the farms in the greater than $500,000 sales classification increased 3.7 percent to 317.1 million acres, while all of the other classes saw a decrease in total land farmed. These most lucrative farms now own 35 percent of the land farmed in the U.S.

Whereas the smallest sales class farm of $1,000 to $9,999 decreased in the amount of land farmed by 3.9 percent to less than 97 million acres. The report attributes part of this decrease to some of these farms moving up into a higher economic class.

Farms with cattle operations decreased by 1 percent in 2012, and those with milk cows decreased 3 percent. Hog, sheep, and goat operations all decreased by 1 percent.

Texas led the losses in state acreage farmed at a whopping 2 million acres lost, due to their drought conditions and cattle ranching. Montana was next with a loss of 1.7 million acres, also attributed to cattle ranching.

Note: The USDA’s definition of land in farms consists of agricultural land used for crops, pasture, or grazing. Also included is woodland and wasteland not actually under cultivation or used for pasture or grazing, provided it was part of the farm operator’s total operation. Land in farms includes acres in the Conservation Reserve, Wetlands Reserve Programs, or other government programs.


Source: The Farms, Land in Farms, and Livestock Operations.