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Know your farmer; USDA releases 2012 Census of Agriculture

Where does your food come from? Who grows it? How is it grown? If these are questions that interest you, the USDA’s Census of Agriculture has all the data you could want (and, probably, more).

The US Department of Agriculture conducts the Census every five years. On Friday, USDA released data from its 2012 Census of Agriculture.

A small sampling of the data show that nationally, the average farmer is also older with each census taken over the last 30 years. In North Carolina, the average farmer is 58.9 years old.  Nationally and in North Carolina, there are fewer beginning farmers in 2012 than in 2007.

An aging population of farmers, coupled with a decline in the number of beginning farmers raises questions about who will produce our food in the coming years. As young farmers enter the market, they may find it hard to make a living as the amount of capital needed to start a farming operation (e.g. land, fertilizer, seed, plants, livestock, fencing, refrigeration, and a tractor) is large. Beginning farmers may have difficulty accessing markets—national distributors may require a lot of product to do business with a particular farmer and the infrastructure to sell locally or regionally barely exists in most areas of the state. Encouraging people to enter the business of farming will require that they be able to easily access markets for their products.

Efforts to increase the ability of beginning farmers to access markets is one way to encourage new farmers to enter the business. North Carolina could also encourage new people to become farmers with equitable tax policies. Data show that the majority of farms in North Carolina gross less than $10,000 annually from farm products. State-wide, farmers are spending increasing amounts on farm inputs. The state could encourage people to enter the business of farming on a small scale by reducing barriers to entry. Last year, the General Assembly passed a law that allows farms grossing over $10,000 to avoid sales tax for the supplies needed to run a farm, while imposing sales tax on all farms grossing less than $10,000. This tax policy discourages new farmers from investing in the infrastructure they will need to get a new farm going. This policy is particularly short –sighted in the face of our rapidly aging farm population.

The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association is a member-based non-profit that advocates for fair farm and food policies, builds the systems that organic family farms need to thrive, and educates communities about local, organic farming. Check out our work at www.carolinafarmstewards.org.

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