Sunday, January 31, 2010

Agriculture, agriculture, agriculture:

So, as with most of my digging into dry, obscure facts, the inspiration for this came from reading something that made me so annoyed that I was gritting my teeth. Said thing was an article written by a representative of a Montana trade group talking about how "backyard chickens" and "organic farms" couldn't really feed America.
Which, in part, I am sure he is right: all this hippy agriculture could indeed just be a fantasy, and a fantasy that seems to have some disconcerting implications, mostly involving dinosaur-riding.But, as long as we are talking about agricultural fantasies, it is also fair to talk about large chunks of rural America playing cowboy. I knew that California was the country's largest agricultural state, and I guessed that much agriculture actually went on in big, mainly urbanized states, rather than in the mythical "heartland". But!
The thing to do is to actually look at data.There seems to be a loose relationship between population and agricultural output, although a lot of that has to do with California and Texas.
But that chart is just a warm up, since of course population doesn't have a lot to do with agricultural output: most agricultural output goes on far away from cities.
So the next chart shows us the percentage of a state's population that is rural versus its per capita agricultural output.
Suddenly, the Dakotas become way more important: per capita, they are generating over 12,000 dollars of agricultural income. Other likely suspects, such as Nebraska and Iowa, are also performing quite well. However, up in the top left, notice a four-pointed triangle of states that otherwise don't have a lot in common: Wyoming, Montana, Vermont and Mississippi. Both are highly rural, but have a rather modest agricultural output per capita. California is quite lonely down in the corner.
Of course it doesn't make much sense to look at states in terms of overall per-capita. All those stylists in Hollywood aren't adding much to California's agricultural output. So what if we just look at output per RURAL capita?

Even though everyone moves up with this, the effect is relatively different. California, with a very small rural population, manages to create 48,000 dollars of agricultural income per rural resident. Massachusetts has a similar effect, but that is largely an artifact. As would be Rhode Island and New Jersey, who have infinite output for every rural resident.
This also puts the Midwest/Great Plains in a slightly more modest perspective, and shows that our four-pointed triangle is quite disappointing. Considering how much of Montana is rural, rural Montana (or Wyoming) is not actually producing that much agriculture.

So if organic farms are an illusion, agribusiness being an actual economic force in Montana is doubly so.

Of course, a lot of these charts are dealing with things that are very hard to operationalize. Many "rural" areas are not actually given to serious agriculture, and much agriculture goes on in urban areas (such as Fresno county, which is a metropolitan area, Class 2, and has by its self as much money from agriculture as all of Montana). And of course the amounts of arable land, and how much it can be used, vary greatly from state to state. (It is amazing that North Dakota could even have 1/10th of the agricultural output of California, since it snows in North Dakota from September to May). There are lots of different ways to operationalize this, but my first suspicion was correct: heavy duty agriculture goes on mostly in a number of states, some of which are quite populous and urban.


  1. I'd be interested to see the results generated by omitting all the usual agri-business outliers.

  2. What are the usual suspects in agri-business outliers?