Friday, February 15, 2013

Farm Bulletin: The Measure of a Farm

I begin this introduction with a clarion call to attend the Hillsdale Farmers' Market on Sunday, Feb. 17. That is because it is the last market of the winter season for Ayers Creek Farm, and the last time you can stock up on Anthony and Carol's greens, roots, corn and beans. Their outstanding preserves are available at several specialty groceries around town, including my brother's wine shop, Vino, on SE 28th and Ash. They return to their market stall at Hillsdale on July 7th.

Farm income and deductions are declared on the Schedule F of the personal income tax form. Every five years, the USDA conducts a census of people who file a Schedule F or a corporate return indicating farming as a business activity. Last year, 2012, was a reporting year for the Census of Agriculture, and we submitted our report on the 4th of February, right at the deadline. A response is required by law, and we are now spared a visit by a determined census enumerator.

The author of the first book on agriculture, De Agri Cultura, from around 200 BC was Cato the Censor. It is a good book on farming. As his title indicates, he also served a term as censor, the person responsible for maintaining a census of citizens. The censor was also responsible for public morals, hence the modern definition. Although modern census enumerators have no role in determining public morals, they are also not so well versed in agriculture as Marcus Porcius Cato was, so it made sense to send our answers in on time. Old Marcus was also a pecuniary and heartless s.o.b., as well as a nativist concerned about the encroachment of all things Greek, so we might have sent in the census even in his day to avoid hearing his extreme political views. Even today, the libertarian Cato Institute, its name and character derived from the Roman's family, still has its shorts twisted up about Greece. La plus ça change…

Aside from avoiding pesky enumerators, we willingly submit our farm data because the Census is used by government agencies and advocacy organizations to shape agricultural policy. If small market farms such as ours underreport, we lose visibility and a place at the table in policy debates. It takes a few hours to assemble the information and fill out the form. For highly diversified farms such as ours, it is a daunting task easy to put off until the very last minute.

Filling out the 24-page form is also frustrating because the structure of the questions reflects commodity farming where the production is sold as just so many widgets grown and harvested in standard units. Everything is reported in acres, whereas we measure our plantings in row feet or trees planted. For example, we planted 20,000 row feet of corn, and have no idea how many acres that is. Grains are reported in bushels, and legumes in hundred-weights harvested. The list of crops mirrors a suburban Safeway, not a vibrant urban market. With 72 different crops, tracking their individual yields is an utter waste of time; what is important is the picture that emerges from the mosaic, and the bank balance on the 31st of December. In many cases, we can back-out the numbers, others are wild guesses, and how on earth do you report frikeh*?

There are signs of progress. For example, the national census now includes questions about organic certification, community supported agriculture (CSA) and farmers' markets. Nonetheless, the data garnered from those questions will give only a rough idea of how farming is changing. The balance of questions are grounded in the past, and will not provide a good sense of how agriculture is changing.

The USDA also manages field offices at the state level. As a matter of principle, we refuse to participate in those surveys that do not include the question of whether or not the crop is certified organic. Before the National Organic Program (NOP) was implemented, we were sampled in a detailed survey assessing chemical use on fruit crops. Press releases accompanying the survey's results lauded a drop in chemical usage on fruits as though farmers were using fewer chemicals across the board. Knowing that our organic farm was part of a small sample that drove that conclusion stuck in our craw. When we complained, we were told there was no generally accepted definition of organic so they couldn't collect that information.

In 2006, four years after NOP adoption, we were again included in the sample of the chemical use survey. Even though there were now legally binding national standards of what constitutes organic farming, the survey still did not collect that information, so we sent a letter explaining our refusal to answer. The director wrote back stating that it wasn't important to the survey on chemical usage to separate out farms that "have non-traditional production practices." The letter chided us for not participating and noted that "we will use computer models to estimate your information." A textbook case of bureaucratic insouciance. With a well-practiced script, we still carefully explain to the enumerators who visit or call why we refuse to participate. Amazingly, a survey of Oregon farms issued in December, 2012, a decade after the NOP adoption, still collects no information about the organic certification of the state's crops. It sits, untouched, on the desk.

Agricultural statistics are mired in the late 20th century industrial model of agriculture. The practices and marketing the USDA quaintly considers "non-traditional" are as old as agriculture itself. Heck, we still heed Cato's advice on a wide range of farm practices, even though his politics were obnoxious. With time, fresh ideas will creep into the census, but it is a slow process that needs some obdurate farmers to nudge it along.

* Watch a video of how frikeh is made, as well as a rare interview with Monsieur Boutard.

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