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LAS CRUCES -- Under a cost-saving Census Bureau proposal to survey fewer farms in 1997, the number of farms counted in New Mexico would drop by nearly 60 percent, said a New Mexico State University agricultural economist.


The plan would redefine farms for census purposes from operations with at least $1,000 in annual sales of crops or livestock to operations with at least $10,000 in sales.

The new definition would mean the number of farms in New Mexico would drop from 14,279 (as counted in the 1992 census) to an estimated 5,830, said Rhonda Skaggs, an NMSU professor of agricultural economics and agricultural business. That's a loss of nearly 60 percent.

According to information from Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service, the redefinition would mean an 80 percent decrease in minority-owned farms in New Mexico.

The total number of farms nationwide would drop from 1.9 million to 1 million. "This plan would have a very dramatic effect on the number of farms in almost every state in the country," Skaggs said. "Some states would be more affected than others."

The hardest hit states would be in the Southeast, with West Virginia and Tennessee losing nearly 80 percent and 70 percent, respectively. The Midwestern states of Iowa and Nebraska would lose just 20 percent each.

Under a second redefinition plan being discussed, New Mexico could lose even more farms for a total of only about 2,750. This definition requires that an operation have at least $10,000 in net cash return annually to be considered a farm.

"One of the most important things that the census information is used for is to allocate research and Cooperative Extension Service funds to each state in the country," Skaggs said. "Each state receives their research funds through their agricultural experiment stations and through their cooperative extension services based on the numbe of farms which are in those states. Any redefinition of what a farm is will directly impact the amount of money each state receives."

This would decrease the size of programs that serve New Mexico's agricultural industry, said Gary Cunningham, associate dean and director of NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station.

"This, in turn, would likely decrease agriculture's contributions to a growing, stable economy in the state," he said.

The redefinition would shift funding to states that have more large farms like in the Midwest and California and away from states with more small-scale, limited-resource and minority farmers, Cunningham said.

Skaggs said the Census Bureau's plan also would have political implications nationwide. Much of the political support the public has for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's subsidy programs is based on the public's perception of how many people need assistance, she said.

"The general public perceives small-scale and medium-sized farms as more deserving of federal assistance than larger farms," Skaggs said. "Wiping out, on paper anyway, most of those smaller and medium-sized units could possibly translate into less political support for farm programs in the future."

Skaggs said under the current definition of $1,000 in annual sales many of the units counted as farms aren't really financially viable operations on their own. "The families and individuals that operate many of these small farms derive most of their income from non-farm sources," she said. "They may want their children to be raised in a rural community. Perhaps, they've inherited the farm. They're living on it, and they're producing a small amount of product."

Skaggs said some estimates indicate that an operation requires between $40,000 and $50,000 in gross sales each year to be financially viable.

However, Cunningham said the redefinition could lead to a social injustice by focusing assistance on large, industrial farms. He is concerned about farmers like those in north-central New Mexico that really do rely on their farm income, no matter how small, as part of their livelihood. "As a nation, we need to support small-scale farmers whose income may not be considered economically significant but is important to their families," he said.

The criteria for defining a farm for census purposes has changed nine times since 1850. The current definition of an operation with at least $1,000 of agricultural products sold has been in effect since 1974, Skaggs said.