I am dedicating this week's column to the thousands of men and women who have made agriculture or farming their careers. Many people do not realize that agriculture touches the lives of everyone. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the nation's economy and culture have roots in agriculture.
The 2007 Census of Agriculture was released a few months ago. In this census, West Virginia ranks No. 1 in the nation for having the largest percentage of family-owned farms (92 percent). It is interesting to note that in the past five years family-owned farms increased in this state by 2,860 to 23,618. Additional figures indicate that state farms employ more than 9,500 workers with a payroll of more than $32 million.
Throughout the nation, agriculture is doing more than ever before and doing it more efficiently. Today, the average American farmer feeds more than 130 people. In 1960, the number of people the average farmer fed was 28. Up-to-date technology has increased the food production process. Nationwide, more than 22 million people work in the agriculture industry. This includes careers in food chemistry, commodity trading and banking. In the future, the job description for agriculture professionals will look quite different because of the advances in agriculture technology.
In West Virginia, farming is practiced in a different form than from the extensive cash-crop agriculture practiced elsewhere in the United States. The average farm size is about 160 acres. This could be the reason that only 50 percent of the state farmers consider farming as their primary occupation. A significant number of hours have to be worked at other jobs.
I remember seeing a bumper sticker on a farm truck several years ago that read, "Crime doesn't pay; neither does farming." The rural poverty rate in West Virginia exceeds 20 percent. This figure is more than 5 percentage points higher than the urban poverty rate. Farming in West Virginia is an independent and self-sufficient base for small landowners, but also a large amount of rural poverty. The rugged terrain in this state makes it difficult for an individual farmer to make a decent profit in agriculture.
Raising animals is far more important than growing grain or vegetable crops. Income from animals exceeds the income from plants 7 to 1. In this state, chickens are the leading farm animal with cattle in second place. Most of the poultry farming is in the Eastern Panhandle near the Virginia border. The majority of cattle farms are along or near the Great Kanawha and Ohio Rivers in western West Virginia.
I have always had a lot of respect and warm-heartedness for the people who farm because of the time and hard work that goes with this occupation. A high school classmate had a farm. He told me at a high school reunion, "When you hit, you make good money, but when you don't hit, you lose your shirt, your socks, and your underwear." The farmers who lose pick themselves up by their bootstraps and continue to farm because of their enthusiastic love of farming. This is the American spirit.
All real West Virginia Mountaineers should be proud of these people working on farms and for what they are contributing to the state's economy. Farmers and farm workers are making it possible for other businesses to prosper such as grain, feed and equipment stores.
If you would like to see what is reaped from the labors of farming, take a day to visit the State Fair in Greenbrier County, near Lewisburg. This year's fair will run from Aug. 14 through Aug. 22. Most first-time visitors find this to be a memorable occasion and an education within itself.
References: West Virginia Market Bulletin, published by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture