“The Plate,” National Geographic • Feb. 25, 2016
The “average” American farmer earns an income above most Americans—but that’s often because they’re hustling in a second-job off the farm, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week.
Dairy farmers brought in the most money in 2014, earning an average total of $263,757. Next in line were specialty crop farmers—the category responsible for fruits and vegetables—with $223,414. The lowest income farmers? “Other field crops,” a miscellaneous category including smaller-scale crops like hay, silage, barley and millet. Farms producing crops in that odd lot earned an average of $91,469 a year.
On average, though, most farmers supplement their farm earnings with significant off-farm income—policy speak for a second job, like trucking or clerking at a store. For fruit and vegetable farmers, off-farm earnings accounted for 43 percent of their income, while field crop farmers earned nearly all their income—84 percent of it—by working off-farm.
Dairy farmers, by comparison, hardly rely on second jobs at all: Eighteen percent of their incomes come from second jobs, and the rest—82 percent—comes from the farm. That may be “because of extensive and ongoing time demands, managing a dairy farm rarely permits an operator to work many hours off-farm,” USDA suggests. Your next-best bet for making money via the farm itself? Hogs and cash grain, which includes corn, sorghum and wheat. These producers earn 68 and 64 percent of their income from farm activities.
But the averages may be glossing over a number of other factors. One thing to keep in mind, says Daniel Prager, an economist at the USDA’s Economic Research Service, is that average incomes are likely skewed upward by the rise of mega-farms; those higher-than-average incomes for farmers may obscure the fact that most producers earn far less. “Average income numbers…are increased by very large operations,” said Daniel Prager, an economist in the USDA’s Economic Research Service. “There aren’t that many dairy operations out there, so a few big ones that we’re measuring can increase the total.”
Still, it looks like a second shift is how U.S. farmers will be making ends meet for years to come, thanks to increasing land costs, equipment costs, and competition.
“Part-time farming is pervasive and it appears to me to be permanent, and I think there’ll even be more reliance on off-farm income,” Paul Lasley, a professor of sociology at Iowa State University, who studies farm communities, told Marketplace last year.