Farmers Take on the Agriculture Census


For data nerds like me, I suppose there are few gifts that could compare with the joyous release every five years of the USDA Census of Agriculture. Given that I’m a farmer and sustainable agriculture advocate, I naturally want to track the real-time data trends about what’s happening with our nation’s agricultural scene. I’m interested in farm numbers, farm size, economic viability, the aging farm population, and more.

Bryce Oates, on his farmBut what really interests me, just like in the broader social context of the wildly widening gap of economic disparity, are the differences between the median and the mean.

Inequality. It’s an important concept. So put on your social science goggles, and let’s get down to it.

Lots of people are familiar with the term “average.” In social sciences analysis, we call that the mean. Take the total amount of farm products sold in a year, divide it by the number of farmers, and you’re left with the mean. In 2012, the agriculture census tells us the mean, or “average,” amount of products sold was $187,093 per farm.

That sounds pretty good until you compare it with the median, which is actually much, much lower. The median is where you stack up all of a given population or wage-earning group and describe a characteristic from the middle. In this case, you’d stack all 2.1 million U.S. farmers by rank of sales per year, and the median would be farmer number 1.55 million. That’s a figure the USDA doesn’t even provide.

But here’s a signal: More than 1.6 million farmers of those total 2.1 million farmers sell less than $50,000 per year in agricultural products. That means the median is likely down in the $30- to $40-thousand level. (I’d be more precise, but this is preliminary data, and we won’t know more until all of the USDA ag census data for 2012 is released in May).

3/23/2014 9:15:20 AM

Nice article. Not sure I understand how you arrived at the median--my understanding of the median is that it is the 50th percentile. Thus out of 2.1 million farmers (if we ordered or ranked the farmers from least to greatest) the median would be the farmer located near 1,050,000 (that is, 2,100,000/2). Your article honed in on the notion of central tendency and it does diverge from the topic at hand, the Census of Agriculture, but there is utility in discussing this statistic further. The median, compared to the mean (or more technically the arithmetic mean), is much less influenced by very small or very small numbers. As an example, if you had 5 farmers, 4 had incomes of zero and the fifth had income of 1,000,000 the mean income would be 1,000,000/5 = 200,000. However the median income would be that of the middle most or (50th percentile) farmer of the farmers ranked from least to greatest, thus we rank and identify the farmers as farmers 1 to 5 (incomes of 0,0,0,0, and 1,000,000 respectively). Thus farmer 3 is the middle most farmer and their income is zero thus the median income (and really a much better picture of reality here of this group of five farmers income) of the five farmers would be zero.

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