Farmers Who Don't Farm: The Curious Rise of the Zero-Sales Farmer

Nathan A. Rosenberg


While researchers have extensively studied the growth in the number of small farms between 1982 and 2012 reported in the Census of Agriculture (COA), there has been little discussion of trends among farm operators who do not sell any agri­cultural products. Using previously unreleased COA data collected between 1982 and 2012, this research empirically examines these “zero-sales farmers” for the first time. There was a large increase in the number of zero-sales farmers from 104,000 in 1982 to 466,000 in 2012, as well as a remarkable rise in their share of the farming popu­lation, from 5 percent in 1982 to 22 percent in 2012. Women and minority farmers were dispro­portionately likely to be zero-sales operators: at least 30 percent of women, Native American, and black farmers reported no sales in 2012. Older and beginning farmers were also more likely to report zero sales in 2012 than younger and experienced ones, respectively. Zero-sales farmers dramatically influenced recent census data on farm income, farm size, and operator age, among other results, due to their substantial share of the overall population. In order to effectively utilize COA data, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers should include zero-sales farms in their analyses. There are several steps the U.S. Depart­ment of Agriculture (USDA) can take to make information about zero-sales farmers more readily available and widely understood, such as introducing a zero-sales category in the census results.


Agriculture; Census; Census of Agriculture; Farmers; Women Farmers; Beginning Farmers; Black Farmers; African American Farmers; Small Farms; Hobby Farms; Zero Sales

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