Linking Ag and Human Health Bioscience

Interesting first day of the 5th annual Bioscience Conference at Worthington Thursday.  Dale Wahlstrom of the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota opened the session, discussing the Alliance’s vision for the Life Sciencs industry in Minnesota, developed with Deloitte Consulting.  The vision focuses on five general industries in Minnesota:

  • Medical Devices
  • Biologics/Biopharma
  • Animal Health
  • Food
  • Renewable Energy

This year’s Bioscience Conference highlighted Animal Health and Renewable Energy.  There was great coverage on the front page of the local daily newspaper of the afternoon sessions on animal health:

Use of antibiotics in livestock debated at Bioscience Conference

WORTHINGTON — Scrutiny over antibiotic use in the livestock industry continues to make headlines across the United States and around the world, making it a timely topic at the 2009 Bioscience Conference Thursday afternoon in Worthington.

 The animal health track at the conference gave visitors five perspectives on the use of antibiotics, from the impact it has on animals and humans, to food safety and the environment….

A couple of the presenters spoke of the time and money it takes to get an antibiotic approved for use in the livestock industry. Often, a decade or more of research is needed and tens of millions of dollars are spent before an antibiotic ends up on the market….

Worthington (MN) Daily Globe 3 April 2009

Couple of interesting points here regarding opportunities and challenges.  I’ve worked with a number of counties on local water management planning, and the issue of nutrient management always comes up.  Satish Gupta, professor of soil, water and climate at UMN, has conducted research at Lamberton Ag Experiment station in Southwest Minnesota.  The Globe reports:

Increased concentration of soil-applied manure…shows an increased uptake of antibiotics by the plants. Gupta said while antibiotic levels in plants appears minimal, there are some implications on organic vegetable growers who use manure as fertilizer.

In addition to the concerns of antibiotic levels in plants, Gupta said producers will need to be mindful of applying manure on erodible soils.

“If you have erosion of the soil, you’re going to want to control it because the soil can be carrying antibiotics,” he said.

Dr. Robert Elde, Dean of the UMN College of Biological Sciences finished up the first day with details of projects supported by the U’s Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment

I attended the second track on renewable energy, with sessions on wind & solar power, ethanol & biodiesel, and future biomass feedstocks.  Today the conference wrap-up aimed to bring the two tracks together.  More on that later.

(Cross-posted at

Bioscience Conference

 bioscience 09 logo

Worthington Regional Economic Development Corporation‘s 5th annual bio-sciences conference will be held 2-3 April, 2009, on the Minnesota West campus. Worthington, Minnesota, is home to a number of firms working in animal health and bio-sciences. This year, Southwest Regional Development Commission, is a co-sponsor of the conference as well.

On Thursday, the conference features 2 tracks on Renewable Energy—wind & solar, bio-fuel, bio-mass feed stocks—and Animal Health (impacts of antibiotics on livestock production). Sessions will feature speakers from the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota, universities, energy developers, veterinarians, and others involved and interested in the industry.

The keynote speaker Friday morning is G. Steven Burrill, CEO of San Francisco, CA, based life sciences firm Burill & Company. The conference will close with a speech by Minnesota’s Will Steger, Arctic Explorer and global warming advocate, after presentations by the Worthington Middle School Science Club.


(cross-posted from new blog site for )

When is a Farm a Farm?

Exploring Alternative Farm Definitions

We all know what a farm is.  A small white cottage with a big red barn out back, one or two silos and grain bins, cows & horses grazing contentedly in a fenced pasture.  Maybe a chicken coop, hog wallow and a machine shed.

That was my grandpa’s farm 50 years ago and it looks alot different today.  In the 21st Center, when exactly is a Farm a FARM?  How many chickens have to be in that coop?  How many cows in the barn?  How about the over-sized vegetable garden supplying the Farmer’s Market in town?  Or the place gone dormant with the fields resting in CRP?  Does a 4-H or Scout project count if it sells well at the County Fair? 

It’s a complicated question, as discussed (here, here, here and here) when we looked at the US Dept of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture returns.  Currently, USDA considers a farm as any place with $1,000 in sales, or the potential for $1,000 in sales.  This is more than an academic question, as our understanding of many issues in the rural economy depend on how we define our units.

The Economic Research Service at USDA released a report today, Exploring Alternative Farm Definitions, that looks at how we classify agricultural operations for ag statistics and programs.

Meeting agricultural policy and statistical goals requires a definition of U.S. agriculture’s basic unit, the farm. However, these goals can be at odds with one another. USDA defines “farm” very broadly to comprehensively measure agricultural activity. Consequently, most establishments classifi ed as farms in the United States produce very little, while most production occurs on a small number of much larger operations. While desirable for obtaining comprehensive national coverage, measurement and analysis based on the current definition can provide misleading characterizations of farms and farm structure in the United States. Additionally, more stringent requirements have been proposed for farms to qualify for Federal agricultural program benefits. This analysis outlines the structure of U.S. farms, discusses the current farm definition, evaluates several potential criteria that have been proposed to defi ne target farms more precisely, and examines how these criteria affect both statistical coverage and program eligibility.

: Agricultural statistics, Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS), farm businesses, farm definition, program eligibility

Politicians, ag economists and other interested parties are unlikely to agree on a single “best” defnition of farm, rural, or economy.  I try to take all of their numbers with a degree of skepticism.  Sometimes it’s just as important to understand the data behind the data—to know the metadata—as it is to understand the meaning of the data itself.

Census of Agriculture in Southwest Minnesota

Census Ag SRDC Presentation

Census of Ag SRDC Presentation

  • The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) conducts the Census of Agriculture every five years.
    • “The Census looks at land use and ownership, operator characteristics, production practices, income and expenditures, and many other areas.”  USDA defines a “farm” as any operation with $1,000 or more of agricultural production.”

  •  There were 8,333 farms in SW MN in 2007, up 2.8% from 2002.
  • 61% of farms in SW MN (5,124) harvested corn in 2007;
    58% harvested soybeans.
  • 26% of farms in SW MN (2,203) had Cattle in inventory in 2007
    11% had hogs, 4% sheep.
  • An average farm in Minnesota was 332 acres in 2007.
  • Median Farm in Minnesota was 148 acres in 2007.
  • 10% of farms in SW MN were >1,000 acres in 2007.
  • Almost half of farms in SW MN reported sales over $100k in 2007.
  • 15% of farms in SW MN had >$500k sales in 2007.
  • Average farm in SW MN realized ~$280,000 for Production, ~$211,000 Expenses in 2007.
  • ¾ of all Americans use the Internet; 2/3 of farms in SW MN.


(Trying out loading a PowerPoint presentation into WordPress.)

Market Value of Ag Production

SW MN Market Value of Production Per Farm 2007

Agriculture is naturally a risky business.  Americans have chosen to hedge some of that risk through federal farm programs to ensure a reliable supply of food and ag products.  If you can’t eat, the rest doesn’t much matter.

The President’s first budget released last week has received a bit of press for changes to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs previously agreed to as part of last year’s farm bill.  Specifically, BHO proposed to cut off direct payments to commodity growers with sales over $500,000, as well as other reductions in subsidies and promotions.  This could affect over 6,400 farms in Minnesota alone.

Now, I’m generally all in favor of cutting federal spending.  In this case, I’m not sure the proposal is any better than the system in place.

You might think, “Well, anybody pulling in half-a-million a year doesn’t need a handout” and I would be inclined to agree.  However, this is bad math.  That $500k is a gross figure, as I understand it.  Looking at the US Census of Agriculture for 2007, an average farm in Southwest Minnesota would have realized about $282,000 for the market value of the production of crops and livestock, and about $211,000 in production expenses.  That leaves about $70,000 net to support a family, plus typically cash income for off-farm work in many families if only for health insurance.  Not bad in a rural community if I’m doing my math right, and (with economies of scale) double that figure shouldn’t have any need for subsidies.

Unfortunately, life is more complicated than that.  Many farm operations are partnerships supporting multiple generations.  Many farms have hired help—young guys and gals in school or just starting out, or immigrants working the fields and herds.  So start divying that number into smaller and smaller chunks and see how far that goes?  Even so, that number is also a calculated average (that given my grades in statistics class I hesitate to even publish).  This sort of muddled mandate seems likely to push family operations apart to meet some bureaucrat’s unilateral limit rather than create the type of partnerships to be most competitive in a changing economy.

Lincoln County, Minnesota, is a small county by population and acreage, with more what and less higher-margin corn.  In 2007, the 784 farms in Lincoln County calculated out with the lowest margin between sales and market value of production, below a state-wide average ~$35,000.  Yet there were still 77 operations with over $500,000 in sales in the County that year.

Like much of life, some enterprises do well and others not so well.  Agricultural assistance is intended to insulate the profession of farming on the “not so well” years so we have food at the grocery.  Is the system perfect?  Oh heck, no.  Nickel-and-dime hacks won’t necessarily make it any better and the law of unintended consequenses virtually assures ill-thought changes will make things worse.

SW MN Farm Size Pt II

Source: US Census of Agriculture

There are over 8,000 farms in the nine counties of Region 8 in Southwest Minnesota.  Measured by acreage, the largest cohort of farms in the state is 50-179 acres, while the largest group in our region is 180-499 acres.

Measured by the market value of production, Southwest Minnesota has generally fewer of the very small farms—what the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) terms Limited Resource or Lifestyle farms with low gross sales and an operater engaged in another primary occupation.  The ERS typology then splits farms where the operator is primarily engaged in farming into those with sales over or under $100,000 a year.  Almost half of farms in Southwest Minnesota reported sales over $100k in 2007.

This profile varies some across the region.  For example, Lincoln County farmers report lower gross sales; in fact, there were more farms with sales below $1,000 than above $100,000.  This is the norm statewide but unique in the region.  Lincoln County grows the most wheat and least corn and soybeans in the region.  Another factor may be that Lincoln County has a large percentage of population of retirement age which may affect returns.  By contrast, almost 25% of farms in Rock County had sales over $500,000 compared to 8% statewide.  Rock County relies most heavily on livestock production in the region. 

I’m sure other aspects come into play with our agricultural economy.  It will be interesting to see what the numbers have yet to say.

SW MN Farm Size

SWMN Farm Size By County 2007

The average farm size in Southwest Minnesota is about 1/4 larger than in the state overall. This is corn and bean country, fairly evenly split with livestock and hog operations. Diversification seems to favor the 180-499 acre farm size in our part of the world.

The 2007 Census of Agriculture, released last month, is a treasure trove of data and I’ve been trying some different ways to display that data with my off-the-self MS Office 2003. I know alot about Office, but have learned little to nothing since leaving grad school more than a dozen years ago.

(Looks like Flickr isn’t terribly good way to post graphs!)

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