Not too long ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service came out with three reports that highlighted the value of today’s modern agriculture and food production. One of these reports said that agriculture is responsible for just 8 percent of carbon emissions in this country. This compares with 30 percent from industry, 27 percent from transportation and commercial, and residential 35 percent. Agriculture’s low carbon emissions come from being more efficient by producing more products with fewer acres and animals. Another report states that agriculture has the “unique ability” to capture carbon emissions from the atmosphere and store it in the soil. It does this through activities such as no-till farming and planting grasses and meadows. Back in 2010, agriculture sequestered our carbon emissions.
Contrary to popular thought, about 98 percent of all farms in this country are family farms. They are owned and operated by the family or individuals related to the operator. These farms may be incorporated for legal reasons but are not corporate owned or operated. Most family farms are small farms that produce just more than 15 percent of our agricultural production. More than 70 percent comes from the larger farms. Non-family farm production is important with about 15 percent coming from that small group of larger farms. According to ERS, small family farms have “over-invested” in assets. These include buildings and land not used for production. This reflects the ability of larger farms to use the “economics of scale” to produce more crops, food and livestock with fewer assets.
Food and beverage plants in the U.S. employ about one and a half million people. That is about 15 percent of all manufacturing workers. These workers employed in 30,000 food plants across the U.S. They process the raw agricultural products into food and beverages for us to eat and drink. They also go into a number of commercial and non-food items. Meat and poultry plants employ 32 percent of people working in these processing plants, the largest group. This shows the importance of this part of the food industry. Bakeries come in second and fruit and vegetable processing third.
Looking at the big picture of both the production and processing sides of agriculture shows us the total value of the agricultural industry. Transporting farm production from farm to processor to final market is also another part of the picture. When you stop to think about it, the total agricultural picture is a complex one when we start at the farm and follow our food to the grocery shelves. Every part of the industry is important in providing us with the abundant and healthy food that goes on our tables. All too often, with a large part of our population totally removed from the farming part, they tend to be critical of modern farms because they don’t understand what is involved. Production agriculture has a huge educational job to do.
John Parker is a professor emeritus from the Ohio State University and is an independent agricultural writer.