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Small Farms, Big Differences

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

Are we seeing a resurgence in small farms? The latest Census of Agriculture reported that there were more small farms in 2007 than in 2002. But it’s important to understand the diversity among small farms, and the broad definition of a farm.

USDA defines a small farm as an operation with gross cash farm income under $250,000. Within that group are commercial and noncommercial farms. The number of small commercial farms – with sales of $10,000 to $250,000 – actually fell between 2002 and 2007. It was the noncommercial farms that accounted for the growth in small farm numbers. In fact, all of the growth occurred among farms under $1,000 in sales. These are classified as farms so long as they have enough land or livestock to generate $1000, whether or not actual sales reach that level. Most of these operations are better described as rural residences; the households on these farms – and on many other small farms – rely heavily on off-farm income.

While most U.S. farms are small – 91 percent according to the Census of Agriculture – large farms ($250,000 and above) account for 85 percent of the market value of agricultural production. Moreover, the number of small commercial farms, as well as their share of sales, has shrunk over time.

Production is shifting to larger farms because economies of scale reduce costs in some tasks, and because modern tillage systems, seeds, and equipment reduce the time needed to perform other tasks. Farmers who are able to assemble the needed land and equipment can now run bigger farms than they could 25 years ago.

Despite the continuing shift in production to larger farms, the contribution of small commercial family farms is still considerable. They numbered about 800,000 of the 2.2 million U.S. farms in 2007, and the value of their output exceeded the production of all Corn Belt farms. And many small operations remain profitable.

What about the product mix? Some observers regard fruit and vegetable production, with limited land needs, as a viable small farm option. But many surviving small commercial farms focus on commodities that involve a limited labor commitment. Cattle, poultry, and grains/soybeans – which can be produced on a part-time basis – account for over 70 percent of small commercial farm production.

Along with my colleagues Bob Hoppe and Penni Korb, I invite you to learn more about these issues from our report Small Farms in the United States: Persistence Under Pressure.

By Jim MacDonald, Chief, Agricultural Structure and Productivity Branch, Economic Research Service

Small farm

Small farm. Photo courtesy Shutterstock.

Out of the Ashes: Mount St. Helens 30 Years Later

By Phil Sammon, Forest Service

Hindsight always proves to be most clear the farther you get from an event. The myths and legends of the event and the anecdotal side stories fade with time when held against the truths of the event or situation. Similarly, the projections and visions of the future impacts of the event can be quite different than what is first conjectured immediately afterward.

As we observe the 30th anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption, we can stand back and marvel at the ability of the natural resources to not only bounce back, but to flourish and astound us in its ability to literally rise up from the ashes of complete destruction. The evidence, including historic photos, data, and first-person accounts, are displayed on the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument website, hosted by the US Forest Service. Beyond the science, the research, and the analytics of it all, stands the majestic Mount St. Helens as a tribute to the resilience and restorative power of the natural resources the agency manages.

The actual day of the eruption, Sunday May 18, started out bright, clear, and with no warnings or signs of the impending disaster that loomed just a mile below the volcano’s dome. Having spent Saturday night on duty at an observation post about 6 miles both of the volcano, US Geologic Survey volcanologist David A. Johnston radioed in laser-beam measurements he had made earlier that morning. The status of the measured activity showed no change from the pattern of the preceding month. About 20 seconds after 8:32 a.m. PDT, the bulged, unstable north flank of Mount St. Helens suddenly began to collapse, triggering a rapid and tragic chain of events that resulted in the now-famous widespread devastation. When the rumblings and upheaval diminished to a point where such details could be assessed, 57 people, including volcanologist David Johnston, had died.

The assessment also showed that 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways, and 185 miles of highway had also been destroyed. The eruption caused a massive debris avalanche, reducing the elevation of the mountain’s summit from 9,677 ft to 8,365 ft (more than 1300 feet), and replacing it with a 1 mile wide horseshoe-shaped crater. The debris avalanche contained up to 0.7 cubic miles in volume. To put that into perspective, the debris avalanche from the eruption would completely fill all 32 NFL stadiums in the country 31 times.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Congress established the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, a 110,000-acre area around the mountain and within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The Johnston Ridge Observatory there is named in honor of David A. Johnston.

If you have the opportunity to spend any length of time on or around the Monument, you will be struck by the breathtaking panoramas and landscapes of the area. If you have the occasion to hike or camp there, you will only be more and more inspired by the ability of the natural resources to rebound: plants of all shapes and sizes are flourishing; wildlife has returned to many parts of the area; lodge pole pines are once again reaching toward the skies that 30 years ago were blackened out by the heavy plums of ash, smoke, and debris exploding onto the eastern Washington sky.

Mount St. Helen 

View of the north side of Mount St. Helens overlooking Spirit Lake from the Boundary Trail at Norway Pass. This side of the volcano was literally blown off – more than 1300 feet was blown up and out from the eruption.

Learning About Healthy Eating, First Hand

By Liz Sawyer, reporter, Waterford Kettering High School newspaper

When I first heard about Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity, I thought that it was a honorable effort on her behalf, but that it would be a futile attempt to try to introduce healthier meals in schools. Adults think that adolescents are extremely stubborn about what they consume throughout the day, and in many cases, they are. I’m a senior in high school, and must admit that even I have a limited palate, so the likelihood of getting kindergarteners to try new fruits and vegetables seemed slim to none.

But I was mistaken. Yesterday, Audrey Rowe, Deputy Administrator for Special Nutrition Programs for the USDA visited Waterford Village Elementary School. She was presented with some of their new initiatives to improve nutrition. The students at Village started their own vegetable garden on school grounds and plan to incorporate those crops into their daily meals. In addition to the garden, these students receive free vegetables weekly and are actually excited to try new healthy snacks. I was nothing short of surprised when the children lined up for the salad bar, and immediately wished that we had one available to us at the secondary level.

Some of the students I spoke with yesterday said that after being exposed to more vegetables on a daily basis, they wanted to continue eating them at home. Now I was in absolute shock. If this trend continues in the elementary schools, maybe the older students will begin to eat more than just macaroni and cheese and pizza for lunch. We should all take a lesson from Village.

Audrey Rowe with Students at Waterford Elementary School 

FNS Deputy Administrator for Special Nutrition Programs Audrey Rowe with a student serving beverages during lunch

at Waterford Elementary School.

Discussing the Power of Telemedicine

I am very pleased to launch our latest effort to encourage more widespread use and understanding of the life-saving field of telemedicine through our Power of Telemedicine web discussion.  Telemedicine has grown steadily over the past decade. The USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) has participated consistently along the way, supporting innovation in telemedicine as early as 1993 with our Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program. Our telemedicine program is designed specifically to meet the health care needs of rural America.  Through loans, grants and loan and grant combinations, advanced telecommunications technologies provide enhanced health care opportunities for rural residents.  It, together with our Distance Learning program, has funded over 900 projects in 48 states and several US Territories totaling over $300 million. Read more »

My Latest Child Nutrition Reauthorization Tour Stop: Waterford, Michigan

By Audrey Rowe, FNS Deputy Administrator for Special Nutrition Programs

 I’ve had a chance to see a great deal of impressive schools during my tour of the country to speak about Child Nutrition Reauthorization.  My recent visit to Waterford Village Elementary was no exception.  Witnessing their approach to providing their students good nutrition and physical fitness activities hammers home the importance of the commitments they and those in their communities have made.

Given that reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act is currently pending, I was eager to hear from students, teachers, and food service workers about how USDA can improve its programs and further support efforts like those made by this suburban Detroit school.  

I was inspired and encouraged by what I saw and heard, as well as the people I met.

For starters, I toured the school’s amazing garden with Master Gardener Kathy Wolak. Kathy demonstrated how she uses raised planters to educate students about growing and caring for vegetables. She and the school plan to expand the garden to include fruit trees and to supply the nearby cafeteria with veggies and salad fixings to bring a whole new meaning to the term “locally-grown”.  

After the garden tour, I had a tasty, freshly-prepared lunch with the veggie-lovin’ students of Waterford Village. Mary Seeterlin, Waterford’s food service manager and the School District’s Food and Nutritional Services staff have made eating lunch exciting at Waterford. Among other practices, they created a vegetable of the week program to get kids to try all sorts of new things. More than one student told me how much they like the program and I was surprised by how many kids ate fresh salads, garbanzo beans and even fresh broccoli—that’s right, fresh broccoli!  

While with the students I mentioned First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign.  In return, I learned about a number of the school’s efforts to promote physical activity. A few of the students proudly displayed their enthusiasm for exercise by showing off with a few jumping jacks. They asked me to join them,  which provided one of my favorite memories of the day!  

I was inspired by so many people at Waterford that it’s difficult to name them all. 

I look forward to visiting another school in the future, to hear about their innovative practices in nutrition and physical activity.  But I’m also interested in hearing about the continued successes of Waterford Village’s amazing elementary school.  

 Student enjoying a salad at Waterford Elementary School

A Waterford Elementary School student enjoying a salad.

 Audrey Rowe jumping rope with students

Audrey Rowe exercising with students at Waterford Elementary School.