Never mind that one of my final days in Wyoming was spent helping brand calves alongside a former governor in the shadow of the Tetons, I'm no farm kid. Growing up in the Cowboy State, it took a lot more than occasionally baling hay or digging ditch to earn your symbolic spurs as a full-fledged farmer or rancher.
But even if my tan line and politics don't much align with the typical western agricultural producer, I feel a close sympathy for the men and women who make a living by feeding the rest of us. Grandpa Bell, who legitimately was at least a small-time rancher on his 40 acres, used to lament that our fellow Americans thought chicken isn't something that squawks and has feathers, but somehow magically springs into existence as pre-cut pieces in plastic-wrapped trays. He made that observation back in the 1970s. Nowadays, with day-to-day farming even less visible, it's possible some folks imagine chicken nuggets are painlessly harvested from bushes.
My long-time friend Dian Barker-Sayce from Bank of the Pacific and I have joked that we belong to a small local club obsessed with demographic and economic statistics. Census data of all kinds — not just the upcoming "Big One" every 10 years, but also the vital American Community Survey, and others. All we data wonks have just received an important every-five-years gift, in the form of the federal Census of Agriculture.
Farming, cattle-raising, dairies and other pursuits fitting under the "agriculture" umbrella remain an important part of the Columbia-Pacific's economy, so there are great reasons to keep an eye on how they are doing. You can explore for yourselves at https://tinyurl.com/latest-ag-census.
Here are a few things that caught my eye (bear in mind that ag census results take a while to compile, so the information was gathered in 2017):
• In Oregon the number of farms rebounded to 37,616 compared to 35,439 five years earlier and 38,553 a decade ago. The big factor in the increasing number of farms between 2012 and 2017 was a surge in small farms totaling from one to nine acres. (An acre is three-quarters the size of a football field.) There were around 3,400 more of these smallest Oregon farms in 2017 than in 2012.
• The most recent count found 226 farms in Clatsop County, up from 199 last time. The growth was all for the smallest farms, which totaled 74 in the new census compared to 32 last time. The average income per farm for ag products sold declined to $48,853 from $52,413 five years before, possibly a refection of the shift toward smaller properties.
• In Washington the number of farms fell to 35,793, continuing a downward slide from 37,249 in 2012 and 39,284 in 2007. Losses would have been worse but for a gain of 964 in the number of smallest farms. Pacific County added 16 farms in the latest census, which found a total of 346. The increase was almost entirely in middle-sized farms of 50 to 69 acres. Average income per farm increased a little to $112,360, up from $111,460 five years before.
My grandfather's main ag interest, at least in his older years, was beef cattle. He would have been interested to know that Pacific County's beef inventory increased to 2,411 in the current census, up a whopping 33.5 percent from 2012. Clatsop, in contrast, experienced a 41 percent drop in beef cows, to just over 2,500 head in 2017. Listening to the livestock report on his tinny AM radio at dawn, Grandpa would have scratched his bald head and wondered why. Are cattle escaping north across the Astoria-Megler Bridge late at night? I imagine him grinning at the thought.