Accumulated numbers we love

As many Eastern Cornbelt farmers nervously estimate just how many frost-free days (weeks?) they’ll yet need to bin an almost certain to-be-late harvest, it’s time for me to sweep my bins — or at least this 150 foot-square office — of some numbers that have accumulated over the summer.

For example, agriculture has a huge stake in the upcoming legislative fight over climate change. In fact, it has the biggest stake of any economic sector in America: food production, processing and retailing burns 19 percent of all U.S. energy annually.

Production flounders

Despite this energy need, much of ag’s biofuel production flounders. A recent Wall Street Journal story highlighted biodiesel’s big, 2009 bust and predicted the next generation of ethanol production, cellulosic, will face an equally tough future when, if ever, it takes root.

And, the story continued, none of this occurred in an economic or political vacuum.

“In 2007, biofuels, including ethanol, received $3.25 billion in subsidies and support — more than nuclear, solar or any other energy source,” according to the Energy Information Administration.

Ouch.

Maybe some salve can be found in two numbers published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that same year. Since the early 1970s, USDA reported, farm energy consumption has fallen 26 percent as farm output has increased 63 percent.

Wanna’ know about another, almost unearthly return?

According to preliminary numbers released by the Troubled Asset Relief Program, that $700 billion gorilla sent forth by Congress last fall to bail out Wall Street, initial repayments of TARP loans, on average, returned taxpayers a staggering 17.5 percent.

The exact numbers are 37 loans representing about $70.4 billion, or 34 percent of all lending, have been repaid in full along with $10 billion in interest, dividends and warrants.

Has any non-TARP anything — private or public — done as well?

As noted in a mid-August column, a June 30 Government Accountability Office report noted that the number of U.S. farms with cattle and calves dropped from 1.15 million in 1987 to 789,300 in 2007.

Equally eye-catching

Other numbers in the troubling report are equally eye-catching: the number of farms with hogs and pigs dropped from 238,819 in 1987 to 74,789 in 2007, while the number of farms with dairy cows over the same era fell from 162,555 to 69,762.

One farm sector actually witnessed a growing number of producers. The number of farms producing poultry and eggs — the latter item is the key — nearly doubled, from 86,885 in 1987 to 148,9111 in 2007. Shocking, eh?

Real shocker

The real shocker in the GAO report, however, is found in the farm concentration table. For example, under the heading “Fewest number of farms accounting for 50 percent of sales” we find:

– Nationwide, just 32,886 farms sold at least 50 percent of all farm production in 2007; that number was 75,682 in 1987;

– In cattle, only 2,862 “farms” (mostly mega-feedlots) sold half or more the nation’s tall walkers in 2007; in hogs, the 50 percent threshold was reached with even fewer, just 1,713 “farms,” according to the GAO and

– Only 43,409 “grain and other crop” farms yielded at least half of the national feed and fiber production.

Despite this dramatic, historical concentration of agricultural assets and production, the GAO claimed it “found no evidence of market power” in the trend.

Key reason

Maybe a key reason for this can be in the accompanying chart in the GAO report that shows prices received by all farmers between January 1982 and April 2009 rose only 34 percent while food prices rose 128 percent and the overall U.S. economy grew 102 percent.

How could concentration benefit any farmer when all sucked 60 to 100 percent less oxygen than the rest of the economy over the nearly three-decade period?

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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