Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Timothy Wise argues for "a little more rigor and a little more honesty" on farm statistics

In an earlier post, U.S. Food Policy discussed with great interest Timothy Wise's working paper (.pdf) on "Six Common Errors in Presenting Farm Statistics." I defended the traditional conclusions many readers draw from these statistics -- farmers are as prosperous as the average American, while farm programs benefit the few and fail to serve the many.

In correspondence today, Wise offers a response. He takes to heart some of my comments, and is tough on others: "In general, people seem to want to cite statistics that bolster their policy arguments, and dismiss statistics that don’t. I’m arguing for a little more rigor and honesty about the presentation of farm numbers as they relate to family farmers."

Here is the response in full:

Parke Wilde’s response to my working paper on the uses and misuses of farm statistics echo those of a few others I received. That either means I was unclear and/or imprecise in my own presentation, or we are each using the data to show different things. I would suggest that it is a little bit of both.

As to my own imprecision or lack of clarity, several people in addition to Prof. Wilde commented to me that they thought I was devaluing the contributions of part-time farmers. Indeed, that was not my intention, and I may have been unclear or misleading in trying to rebut the overgeneralizations about the farm sector that come from the predominance of part-time farmers in the sector. As I responded to those people (including two part-time farmers) directly, I mean no devaluing of such work, nor the subsidy payments – especially conservation payments – that seem very well-placed among part-time farmers, who are in a position to be excellent stewards of the land precisely because they are free of the market-driven impetus to make as much off their land as they can.

As to the uses of the data to show different things, it seems Prof. Wilde wants to show that current US farm policy is flawed and that the critiques of it are valid. Though he and I might not agree on the specific flaws or the policy reforms that might correct them, we can agree that current policy is a disaster – for family farmers, for the environment, for the federal budget, for developing country farmers. My paper, though, took no position on those issues, only on the misleading presentation of data in regards to family farmers. Those commonly heard myths are:

1. Farmers are better off than the rest of the population, so they don’t need farm programs. Analysts regularly cite data on the farm sector that include the 65% of farmers who don’t farm as their principal occupation. I argue that when most of us hear the first statement, we envision full-time family farmers, not hobby farmers, and that looking more closely at the data gives us a better picture of how those farmers are doing, and they are not doing as well as the aggregate numbers suggest. If the question is, how are family farmers doing, the answer should not rest on data heavily skewed by part time farmers, and to some extent by large commercial farms. I think that point stands.

2. Because farmers are relatively well-off, the farm economy must be working pretty well. I argue that incorporating off-farm income in an analysis of the functioning of the farm economy is misleading. That’s fine for a discussion of income policy, but not farm policy. It’s a little like saying that US dumping of corn on Mexico hasn’t hurt Mexican families much because the migrants they’ve sent to the US send a lot of money back home. That’s interesting for income policy, but not for trade or agricultural policies. It’s misleading, since it hides the way the farm economy is truly functioning. It is important to know that even large family farm households are getting only half of their disposable income from farming, the other half coming from off-farm sources. Many honorable people may think that is just fine, and they are entitled to that opinion. I would argue they are not entitled to present farmers who are making half a living from their farming as if they were making a full living, as if the farm economy were sustaining them well.

3. Only a minority of farmers get payments, mainly the rich ones (and absentee ones, as Prof. Wilde repeats from the large base of anecdotal evidence). Again, I argue that this is overstated. Many part-time farmers don’t get payments, but why should they? A significant majority of full-time farmers do, and that makes some policy sense. Payments are indeed skewed at the very top 2%, but even that data is misleading. If we want to know if full-time family farmers are benefiting from federal farm programs, they are, more than the aggregated numbers would suggest. That’s no endorsement for current programs, but things aren’t as skewed as Environmental Working Group and others might suggest.

Those are not circular arguments, but they are a reinterpretation of the available data to answer the questions that I think many people are asking: How are family farmers doing? And how are US farm programs affecting them? The message is fairly simple: If the question is about family farmers, use the data about family farmers.In general, people seem to want to cite statistics that bolster their policy arguments, and dismiss statistics that don’t. I’m arguing for a little more rigor and honesty about the presentation of farm numbers as they relate to family farmers. Those figures still suggest the need for a major overhaul in farm policy, in my estimation. But I do not think they support the easy arguments some make about getting the federal government out of the farm sector because there is no further need for US farm programs.

Tim Wise
October 18, 2005

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