Farm income seen holding steady

The Baltimore Sun

This may be the year that farmers put a new set of spark plugs in their old Farmall tractors, instead of replacing them with new rigs.

Farmers are not going to have as much money to bank at the end of the harvest season as the federal government forecast earlier this year and, as usual, they will draw the bulk of their earnings from off-the-farm jobs.

When farmers close their books on the 2008 growing season, net farm income is expected to total $86.9 billion, according to a revised estimate by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This is little changed from last year when farmers across the country earned a collective $86.8 billion.

At the beginning of the corn harvest season, the government was predicting that net farm income would reach $95.7 billion, an increase of 10 percent over the previous year.

This year's payout is still going to be 42 percent above the 10-year average of $61.1 billion. But earlier in the year, the USDA expected the 2008 payout to be 57 percent higher than the 10-year average.

Farm net cash income - a farmer's income minus production costs and depreciation of equipment - is also expected to be less than the USDA's previous projection. According to the government's latest figures, net cash income will be $90.7 billion. This would be $3.3 billion (4 percent) above last year and 33 percent above the 10-year average.

Net cash income is projected to rise more than net farm income because of the carry-over of 2007 corn, soybeans and other crops that are being sold this year.

In September, the government predicted net cash income would reach a record $101.3 billion this year. This would have been a gain of 16 percent over last year.

Looking at the current year, the government said a large increase in the value of crop production was offset by rising production costs for the farm sector.

The value of crop production, at $181 billion, is forecast to exceed the 2007 record by $30 billion, or 20 percent.

The USDA said that income performance will not be the same across all farms. In 2008, current commodity and input indicate that incomes will likely be lower for cotton, specialty crops and livestock operations.

Unlike the situation for grains and oilseeds, receipts on these farms are not expected to rise enough from 2007 levels to offset increases in expenses.

Looking at other financial aspects of farming, the government reports that average farm operator household income is expected to total $86,798, up less than 1 percent from the 2007 estimate. This contrasts with a 2006-2007 increase in farm operator household income of 6.1 percent.

The slight increase in the 2008 income forecast is the result of an increase in off-farm income that just barely compensated for the decline in farm income. The average farm household income from farm sources is forecast to be $5,900. This is down more than 30 percent from last year.

Average off-farm income is forecast to be $80,897, up 4.2 percent from last year.

The government says the average share of farm household income from farm sources is forecast to be 7.3 percent, compared with 10 percent in 2007.

The long-term trend has farm operator households increasing their reliance on off-farm income. Approximately 70 percent of farm operator households have either an operator or spouse of an operator working at an off-farm job.

Only on the largest 8 percent of farms (those with sales of $250,000 or more) is average farm income greater than off-farm income in a typical year.

Looking ahead

It is time to mark your calendar for some worthwhile farm events coming up early next year.

* The 2009 conference of Future Harvest-CASA, considered one of the more comprehensive annual sustainable agriculture discussions in the Mid-Atlantic region, will be held Jan. 16 -17.

The event will be held at the Holiday Inn and Conference Center in Frederick.

Promoters of the conference say it will provide two days of connecting with people involved in all aspects of the local food system.

There will be discussions on how to improve the sustainability of your farm operations and marketing approaches designed to increase your bottom line.

Nina Planck, author of Real Food and an authority on farmers' markets and local food, will be the speaker. She will discuss the best practices in farmers' markets and ideas for developing markets for local and traditional food.

Conference sessions will be devoted to a variety of topics, including healthy soil equals healthy food, innovative farm-to-school programs, marketing grass-based products, heirloom tomato production, the economic aspects of multispecies grazing, and Maryland Grazers network monitoring program.

* Looking at a much broader farm perspective, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will hold its 85th annual Agricultural Outlook Forum in late February.

The event will be held Feb. 26-27 at the Crystal Gateway Marriott Hotel in Arlington, Va.

The secretary of agriculture, along with other government, farm and industry leaders, will discuss the future of American farming.

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