The world's oldest profession: More profitable than ever

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It’s never been so trendy to be a small farmer. Buying your tomatoes, lettuce and peppers at the local farmers’ market has become a weekly ritual for millions of Americans. Supermarkets are stocking small farmers’ yogurt, milk and cheese products next to stalwart dairy brands. Signs are posted in the produce and fruit aisles, informing shoppers as to where that apple or carrot was grown. It may not be too far of a stretch to say that the small farmer has become a rock star in the farm-to-table craze.

“There’s never been a better time to get into small farming than in the last 30 years,” says Dan Barber, executive chef of Blue Hill and author of The Third Plate. “If someone told me they were interested in farming, I would say ‘go.’ It’s boom time. Small farmers have never made more money…they’re cultural icons.”

There are 2.1 million farms in the U.S. according to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, the latest set of data available. That’s down 4.3% from 2007. The number of mid-size farms fell in that five-year time span but the number of large (1,000 plus acres) and very small (1 to 9 acres) farms did not change significantly. From 2001 to 2011, the number of "micro" farms (1 and 49 acres), rose by nearly 100,000.

More than 144,500 farm operators reported selling products directly to consumers. Those sales totaled more than $1.3 billion -- up 8.1% from the previous census in 2007.

Related: Blue Hill’s Dan Barber: The farm-to-table movement has failed

Barber has working relationships with many small farmers in New York’s Hudson Valley region. About 40 small farms supply the ingredients at Barber’s two Blue Hill restaurants, one of which is located at the Stone Barns Center in Pocantico Hills, NY. Barber also has a personal interest in the state of farming: he and his brother David grew up in Great Barrington, MA, on their family’s 138-acre farm called Blue Hill. The farm’s chickens, pigs, dairy cows and laying hens are part of Barber’s innovative seasonal restaurant menus (the Barber brothers now own and control the farm).

Farmers’ markets have increased small farmers’ exposure to new customers, who in turn have also gained access to the men and women plowing the fields. But there are mid-scale farmers who are having trouble competing with small and large ranches -- a syndrome referred to as “Agriculture of the Middle.”

“Small farmers are doing well because they have the ability to sell direct to market,” explains Barber. “Large farmers are doing very well because they're selling to the Walmarts of the world. Then there’s this group of farmers who are too small to compete in the ‘Walmartification’ of the food system and are too large to pack up a pickup truck and drive their produce to the farmers’ market.”

Related: The craft beer boom could mean the end for some brewers

The average age of a farmer in 2012 was 58.3 years, up 1.2 years since 2007. The government counted fewer new farms in 2012 (“new” refers to farms that have been in operation for less than 10 years) compared to 2007 (a 20% drop). The 2012 Census report also found that 87% of U.S. farms are run by families or individuals.

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