One of the Journal Star editorial board’s platforms in 2019 was to defend the agricultural economy because of its importance to the entire state.
The latest Census of Agriculture, released last week, underscores the struggles being faced by Nebraskans who make their living off the land. Should the troubling trends this U.S. Department of Agriculture document highlights continue, the squeeze will felt by all residents of the state, regardless of whether they’re connected to a farm or ranch.
Perhaps the most disconcerting figure is the marked decrease in farm income. Between 2012 and 2017 – the five years encapsulated by the report – average net income per farm fell 19%. Innumerable factors are at play, with bottomed-out commodity prices and an international staring contest over tariffs chief among them.
Furthermore, historic flooding continues to devastate the agricultural industry in many corners of the state. The most recent figures estimate $400 million in livestock losses and $440 million in crop losses. Those aren’t accounted for in the 5% fall, down to $22 billion, in the value of agricultural products sold in 2017 as compared to 2012.
The end result, too, is a decline in the number of farmers – getting fewer, further between and older, with the average age increasing to 56.4 years from 54.3 in 2012 – and farms. Nebraska reported 7% fewer farms in just five years. Farms between 10 and 500 acres, typical family farms, shrank in number, as the average size of a farm in the state rose by the same percentage, up to 971 acres.
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Nebraska’s numbers far outpace the national averages, too, likely because of the outsized impact of agriculture on this state.
Why does this matter to those whose livelihoods aren’t directly tied to the ag economy? The industry, which employs roughly one in four workers in the state, helps to fund the services enjoyed by all 1.9 million of us in Nebraska.
And that’s before even considering the disproportionate property tax burden already placed on the state’s ag land. Progressive Farmer crunched numbers to find that Nebraska ranked as the third-highest state in terms of total property taxes for farmers, ranking second behind only California on a per-farm basis. A lack of state aid to schools has shifted this responsibility onto local property taxes.
If farmers and ranchers are making less, they’re spending less. Accordingly, Nebraska takes in less income and sales tax. The resultant decreases in tax revenue, then, will ripple from border to border and have to be made up either with spending cuts or tax increases elsewhere.
In a state where farmland accounts for 91.5% of the total land area, all Nebraskans need to fight for a strong ag economy, as it benefits us all. The grim picture painted by this report only accentuates the magnitude of the battle ahead.