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The West 2000 Page 6

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Fewer than 10 percent of American farm operators are under the age of 35. About half the farm operators are under 55. But the number of operators 65 or older exceeds that of the 35 or younger population by three to one. (Although those oldest farm operators control about the same share of farmland, they average less than half the sales and income per farm than younger operators. They also reported less than one-third of lender debt than the youngest operators.)

On farms where the operators reported farming as their major job, occupying more than half their working hours, average gross income was $132,550 a year. However, less than half the farmers surveyed by USDA reported farming to be their major occupation. Others reported a gross income averaging less than $16,000 a year.

Farms with full-time operators control more than 70 percent of farmland acreage and 79 percent of farm income, but the disparities are sometimes enormous: out of two million farms, only about 123,000, or less than 7 percent, receive the majority of farm receipts. This sometimes leads to the false conclusions that the larger farms produce most of the nation’s food supply (they do not) or that large-scale operations are more efficient, when in fact studies have shown that mega-farms produce a “diseconomy of scale,” both in production and general values of farm economies.

Nearly 80 percent of all farmers have at least a high school education, and half of those at least some college education. Those with the highest education reported on average the highest gross income.

So it appears that if it’s not quite “grandpa’s” farm any more, family farming remains the most vital element of American agriculture, despite the fact that grandsons and granddaughters seem less and less interested. Those farming the most land, and apparently making the most money, are full-time farmers between the ages of 44 and 54.

“Corporate” farms, or those with gross receipts over $250,000 a year, amount to about 6 percent of total farms but account for nearly 60 percent of total farm income.

“Family” farms are difficult to define, since many families have incorporated their interests, and since the averaging in of all family farms distorts the statistics. However, family-owned farm operations in the United States earning less than a gross of $250,000 a year still account for about 94 percent of total farms.

Their value cannot be defined in farm receipts alone, since the value of family farms in rural areas is reflected in goods and services produced and farm contributions to community wealth, including schools and infrastructure, as well as stewardship of the land.

One index of what has occurred in the United States, however, is the steady shift in profit from food production to processors and packagers. Between 1910 and 1990, the share of agricultural profit to the farmer has been reduced from 21 percent to 5 percent.

They were the words of a conservationist who in his administration withdrew more than 200 million acres of public domain from sale to private interests. Yet they were also the words of a rancher, “old four eyes” as he was once called, who credited his own spirit to his time on the range. The heart of the controversy over rangeland today is contained in that seeming contradiction, for while a large portion of the public is being led to believe that grazing is incompatible with the preservation of western public lands, it is the rancher who has conserved those lands for generations foreseen by Roosevelt.


In many western states, there has been an alarming decline in the use of private lands for agricultural and livestock raising purposes. The state of Montana, for example, experienced the loss of 1,000 cattle-producing operations a year between 1995 and 1998. Most of those losses were to non-agricultural purposes.

Grazing fees for use of public land were first imposed with the suggestions and help of ranchers themselves on Forest Service lands in 1906 to aid in administrative costs for maintaining those lands and protecting the rights of permit holders. In 1936, two years after passage of the Taylor Grazing Act, which also had the support of ranchers, fees were imposed on lands generally in the public domain
The beef cattle herd in the United States today stands at about 98.5 million head, a relatively stable figure over the century’s last decade, but representative of some increases in the East along with similar declines in herds west of the Rockies. Of that total, fewer than 25 percent of ranchers in the 11 western states utilize grazing permits on federal land to provide about a quarter of their total forage. Yet because federal ownership so dominates western land, an estimated 60 percent of cattle brought to market from the West can be traced to some grazing on “public” lands.


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