Woolf Outpaces Ag Sector as Manure Producer

Once a week, UVM economist Art Woolf “graces” the pages of the Burlington Free Press with a column called “How We’re Doing,” a platform for his Not-So-Deep Thoughts about the state of Vermont’s economy. Generally, Woolf’s columns present a distasteful combination of lazy analysis, careless oversimplification, conventional thinking, and free-market dogmatism.

In this week’s emission, “Few Vermont Farms Generate Substantial Income,” Woolf takes a big hearty dump on Vermont’s agriculture sector. He misses quite a few points on the way to a simplistic debunking of agriculture as anything other than a picturesque hobby — not unlike conservatives’ frequent pooh-poohing of “trust fund babies” who seek the meaning of life by idly churning the soil.

Woolf’s two main points are: (1) the financially dominant part of the ag sector is dairy production rather than the oft-touted locavore and specialty-producer movements, and (2) the entire ag sector is pretty much insignificant to Vermont’s overall economy. He highlights statistics that show relatively low employment in agriculture, and low earnings for the vast majority of farmers. And he ends on a downright insulting note:

Most farmers who keep the land cleared and grow the fresh food that we enjoy eating do it as much for their own enjoyment as for the monetary benefits it brings them.

Yeah, thanks a lot, Art. Next time you go to a farmers market, may a producer spit on your strawberries.

Now, I’m not an expert on the agricultural economy. But even I can see that Woolf’s argument is overly simplistic and drastically understates farming’s contributions to our economy — tangible and otherwise. In no particular order:

— Woolf notes that agriculture’s share of Vermont’s eocnomic output, 1.1% in 2013, “has been pretty constant for the past two decades.” I say that’s a remarkable achievement. Our dairy sector has been contracting rapidly; if the ag economy has remained steady, that means other parts are growing. But I guess that didn’t fit into Woolf’s chosen narrative that Farming Is For Suckers.

— Agriculture may be a small part of the entire state’s economy, but I’ll bet it’s the lifeblood of many rural communities. If we had no farming — or if we allowed agriculture to die off instead of trying to keep it vibrant — Vermont’s rural economy would be much worse off than it is already.

— By focusing on direct employment and income, Woolf ignores agriculture’s multiplier effect. How many small businesses cater to farmers, both professional and amateur? How many food producers (Cabot Cheese. Ben & Jerry’s) and restaurants profit from the bounty of Vermont farms and their image of high quality? For many eateries, “local” is a core aspect of their appeal, heavily promoted on their signage and menus.

For just one other example, check out any farmers market, and you’ll see ancillary benefits all around. Non-market vendors surround the market proper. Nonprofit groups raise money and awareness for their causes. Downtowns benefit from greatly increased foot traffic on market days.

— The presence of agriculture is a key aspect of Vermont’s tourism industry. Many visitors come to Vermont specifically for the food, the specialty products, farm tourism, and the scenic vistas only visible because farmers are keeping their land clear. Not to mention the scenic appeal of farms themselves. Woolf gives agriculture no credit for that contribution.

— Woolf bemoans the lack of large-scale farming: “Fewer than one in six farms sold more than $100,000 worth of goods… [and] only 850 farmers reported earning income of more than $50,000.” Well, Vermont agriculture is never going to be a large-scale commodity operation because of our topography. There isn’t enough flat, arable land. Vermont farming is always going to include a large quantity of smaller operations.

— Two of Woolf’s key measures are farm employment and income from sales. He points out that most farmers also earn money in other jobs, and that many farms don’t generate enough sales to support a farmer, much less a family. This understates the economic impact of farming in some crucial ways.

Most importantly, a farm may be productive far beyond actual sales. Farm families benefit from living off the produce of their land even if they don’t sell all of it. This doesn’t show up in traditional statistics (or on tax returns), but it helps keep many Vermonters and their communities afloat if not vibrant.

I also suspect there’s a hefty “informal economy” in the ag sector, through bartering or cash transactions. Many farm employees’ incomes are supplemented by a share of the farm’s crops. These things don’t show up in Woolf’s charts and tables.

— Woolf’s dismissive close — “most farmers… do it as much for their own enjoyment as for the monetary benefits it brings them.” Darn tootin’, Art. Indeed, most people in any walk of life “do it as much for their own enjoyment as for the monetary benefits.” Don’t we all seek employment that nourishes the mind and the soul as well as the checkbook? Don’t we all, at some time or other, choose a less remunerative path because we think it’ll be more satisfying? Heck, even the gimlet-eyed likes of John McClaughry and Rob Roper have chosen to work in the nonprofit field instead of, oh, investment banking or sales. And Woolf himself could probably make more money if he moved to a larger university or became a corporate consultant.

There’s a reason our Founding Fathers called for “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” instead of “Life, Liberty, and Profit Maximization.”

— Finally, Woolf ignores the hard work that’s gone toward growing the ag economy. It’s already paid substantial dividends, measurable and otherwise. Organizations like the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, Rural Vermont, and the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont, are helping support and foster an agricultural sector that combines the old and the new in ways that will bolster our economy and help preserve the best of Vermont. And, Woolf notwithstanding, provide a living for a goodly number of Vermonters.

If agriculture wasn’t economically important, I doubt that so many nonprofits and governmental operations would be doing so much to strengthen it. Plowing under the farm fields and building subdivisions would be a much easier, shorter path to economic growth; but what kind of Vermont would be the result?

 

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