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Lies, Damn Lies and Agricultural Statistics

Recently rancher Ken Ardrus had a guest commentary in the Idaho State Journal championing Idaho agriculture. However, like almost all folks in Ag, he has an overblown view of his place in the Idaho economy.

For instance, Mr.Ardrus suggested that Idaho AG was Idaho’s largest industry. This claim is created by aggregating anything remotely connected to Agriculture into the “one industry”, while other economic sectors like the service industry (which is way larger than Ag) is broken down into multiple subsets like finance, legal services, real estate services, tourism, and so on, thus reducing the individual contribution of each to the total economy.

Mr. Andrus also asserts that Ag contributes to 14% of the jobs in Idaho. However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Ag only contributes to 4.1% of all full and part time jobs in Idaho. Idaho Non-farm employment accounts for 95.9% of all jobs.

How does Mr. Andrus and his sources come up with the 14% jobs in AG? I haven’t investigated it for Idaho, but in other states where I have researched Ag’s economics, I’ve found that Ag schools and state Dept of Ag typically inflate the employment in Ag by inclusion in its employment statistics anyone who has any job that is remotely related to food.

There are several ways they inflate Ag’s employment numbers.

For instance, in Vermont where I did an in-depth analysis of Vermont Agriculture and its economic contribution to the state, I found that the Vermont Dept of Agriculture classified anyone who earned more than $1000 in gross income from an agricultural product as a “farmer” even if that person essentially works full time at another job.

For instance, I had a friend who was a professor at the U of Vermont, but he had a sugarbush operation and collected maple syrup. He barely earned a $1000 from his operation, but according to the Vermont Dept of Agriculture, he was a farmer. Of course, if you asked him what he did, he would tell you he was an English professor.

Another way that the Vermont Department of Ag inflated Ag’s contribution to the state economy was due to the inclusion of anyone whose job remotely was tied to Agriculture. So, in Vermont, the biggest sector of the Ag employment wasn’t farmers. It was the grocery checkout clerks, or someone working grinding coffee at Green Mountain Coffee Company or the person making beer at a brewery—all of whom were classified as “Ag workers” because they touched food in some way.

This, of course, inflates other statistics, like the total “income derived from Agriculture”, thus again exaggerating Ag’s importance.

Accordingly, US Dept of Commerce economic analysis all farm/ranching derived income contributed only 5.3% to Idaho’s personal income.

With regards to public lands grazing, the employment is almost insignificant. According to another study done by Dr. Thomas Power, former chair of the Economics Dept at the U of Montana, public lands grazing contributes approximately 0.29% of the income derived from federal forage and only 0.11% of the jobs in Idaho. Power calculates it would take less than 31 days of income growth in other sectors of the Idaho economy to replace all the income from federal grazing leases.

With regards to “water rights” again Mr. Andrus asserts that water rights are property. Mr. Andrus asserts because water rights can be bought and sold they are a property right. You can own a “water right” but that does not mean you own the water, any more than if I bought a cabin on state or Forest Service cabin lease land I would “own” the land.

Like all western states, the Idaho public owns the water. A water right only dictates who gets to use the water and in what quantities IF the public decides to permit its use. What the public giveth it can take away.

In short, beware of Ag statistics which are designed to overstate agriculture’s economic importance to silence criticism and of course ensure continued public support for all the welfare subsidies Ag enjoys at taxpayer expense.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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