by Ed Yowell, Slow Food NYC
Farming in the Northeast, in some ways, looks more European than American. Farms are small. According to the USDA, the average farm size in the Northeast is about 105 acres, 194 in New York State, while the average farm size nationally is 418 acres. By comparison, the average farm in California is 312 acres, with 5.5 percent over 1,000 acres. In New York State, about 2.9 percent are more than 1,000 acres. But the difference is not just size: 84 percent of farms in New York State are family owned, compared to 79 percent in California. Farming in our region is basically a relatively small, family affair.
Farming is not a simple proposition. Besides hard work, it is science, art, luck and, to be successful, no small amount of shrewd entrepreneurship. It is a profession that affords practitioners the ability to be far more independent in their chosen endeavors than many of us who labor in complicated social structures, like corporations and government. If the great American personality trait is rugged individualism, then I think family farmers are where it is vested mostly these days.
Farming seems like big business. It added about $183 billion to the US economy during 2008, according to the USDA. But is it? According to the USDA, in terms of annual farm sales revenue, 75 percent of our New York State farms earn less than $49,000, 82.2 percent less than $99,000. Only 18.8 percent of our New York State farms bring in more than $100,000 per year. However, according to the American Farmland Trust, 125,000 of 2.2 million farms in the United States produced 75 percent of the value of US farm production in 2007. In fact, farming overall is big business, but most farmers run small, family businesses. Nonetheless, where there is big business, there is big government.