The Uncelebrated Places Where America’s Farm Economy Is Thriving

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We consume their products every day but economists give them little attention, and perhaps not enough respect. Yet America’s agriculture sector is not only the country’s oldest economic pillar but still a vital one, accounting for some 3.75 million jobs — not only in the fields, but in factories, laboratories and distribution. That compares to about 4.3 million jobs in the tech sector (which we analyzed last month here). Net farm income totaled $108 billion in 2014, according to preliminary figures from the USDA, up 24% from 2004. This growth may not be impressive by Silicon Valley standards, but most farms and agribusinesses are likely to be with us longer than the latest social media darlings. Online crazes like FarmVille may come and go, but people always have to eat, and in the rest of world, many of them are eating more, and, as the old saying goes, “higher on the hog.” As the world’s leading exporter of agricultural products, the U.S. farm sector is capitalizing on that. The dollar value of U.S. agricultural exports rose to a record $152.5 billion in 2014, making up about 9% of total U.S. goods exports for the year. It’s one of a short list of sectors in which the United States has continued to consistently post a trade surplus — $42 billion last year. For 2013, the USDA estimated that agricultural exports supported about 1.1 million full-time private-sector jobs, which included 793,900 off the farm (in the food processing industry, the trade and transportation sector and in other supporting industries). There are many communities in America where agriculture is still a primary industry — even the dominant one. Working with Mark Schill, head of research at the Grand Forks, N.D.-based Praxis Strategy Group, we analyzed the performance of the nation’s largest 124 agriculture economies and put together a list of the strongest ones. We ranked the 124 metropolitan statistical areas based on short- and long-term job growth (2004-14 and 2012-14) in 68 agriculture-related industries (including food processing and manufacturing, wholesaling and farm equipment), average earnings in these communities, earnings growth, and the share of agribusiness in the local workforce. Short On Water, But Still In The Lead California may be struggling with a terrible drought, but its agricultural economy still thrives in the domestic and international markets. Six of our top 10 U.S. agricultural economies are in California, including No. 1 Madera, No. 3 Merced and No. 6 Bakersfield. These California regions have a similar profile: an outsized concentration in agribusiness, roughly 10 times the national average, reasonable growth, and low but rising wages. All these areas did poorly during the recession, and some, notably Merced, have served as exemplars of what The New York Times described as the “ruins of the American dream.” Many California farm communities, particularly those closer to the ultra-pricey Bay Area, hoped that lower land prices would bring skilled workers, and maybe jobs, to their towns from places like Silicon Valley. But if this aspiration to become a high-tech exurb has floundered in many places, the traditional agricultural economy has continued to roll along. Since 2004, agribusiness employment in our top-ranked agricultural economy, Madera, has surged 36.6%, which is impressive given that nationwide over the same time span, agribusiness employment has remained pretty much unchanged. Although pay for local agriculture-related jobs remains relatively low, wages have risen 15.7% over the past decade to $26,557 for the 14,700 people in this sector. (Note that farm owners on the whole are doing quite well. In 2013, the average farm household income was $118,373, according to the Congressional Research Service, 63% higher than the average U.S. household income of $72,641.) The key to California farming is dominance in specialized, high-value sectors. California accounts for a remarkable 80% of the world’s almonds, and that lucrative cash crop has been key to Madera’s prosperity — the county produced $623 million worth of almonds in 2013. The area is a big producer of milk and grapes as well, and has a thriving organic farm sector. Most of the other California leaders share a similar profile, but with sometimes different specializations. Grapes dominate No. 3 Bakersfield’s agricultural production, while Salinas (eighth), where we have both worked as consultants, describes itself as “the salad bowl of the world,” growing 70% of the nation’s lettuce. The area’s specialization in “fresh” has also made it a center of agricultural research and marketing, which provide higher-income opportunities than more traditional farm-based activities. The Salinas area has also developed a thriving winery scene along the nearby Santa Lucia Mountains as well as a burgeoning number of organic farms production sector in recent years. Heartland Hotspots The other hot spot for the agriculture economy is the nation’s breadbasket. Our second-ranked agriculture hub, Decatur, Ill., grows the cash crops that built Middle America — corn and soybeans cover 80% of the area’s land. Due largely to the more mechanized nature of the area’s wet corn milling industry, and the large related industries, notably Archer Daniels Midland, the average local agribusiness worker makes $85,900 a year, almost three times the wages in Madera and other California farm areas. In fourth place is St. Joseph, a metropolitan statistical area that straddles the Missouri and Kansas border. The area has become a major center for food processing companies – particularly meat — as well as animal pharmaceuticals. It’s a major hub along the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor, where nearly a third of the $19 billion global animal health industry is concentrated. Other heartland growth areas include No. 11 Grand Island, Neb., No. 12 Evansville, Ind., and No. 14 Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa. All these areas specialize in the agribusinesses that have long defined agriculture in the Midwest: cattle, grains and corn. Just two areas in our top 10 are outside California and the heartland. Yakima, Wash., markets itself as the “fruit bowl of the nation,” and accounts for roughly 60% of the nation’s apple production, as well as a major share of cherries and pears. About 30% of the local workforce is employed in agriculture or related businesses. Perhaps the most surprising entrant on our list is the only large metro area in the top 10: ninth place Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell. While agribusiness is not dominant in Atlanta, it makes the list due to high rankings in agribusiness wages ($74,932, 2nd) and wage growth (up 24.5% since 2004). This is driven by high-value sectors such as flavoring syrups and concentrates for the beverage industry (Coca-Cola is based in the city), farm machinery manufacturing, coffee and tea, and breweries. Its high ranking also reflects the vast sprawl of the area, which still also includes many large poultry producers, as well growers of rye, peanuts and pecans. The Agricultural Future Even as population growth slows in the United States and other developed nations, higher birth rates in emerging markets mean the world will require a 70% increase in food production by 2050. The shift of China alone from self-sufficiency in grains such as wheat, corn and soybeans to import dependence all but guarantees growth opportunities for American producers. To be sure, agricultural producers and the areas they are concentrated in face many challenges. Climate change is expected to impact the growing of certain crops. Severe water shortages, like the one California is experiencing, could threaten many agricultural areas throughout the traditionally arid West. These challenges will force food producers and processors to adapt. But what kind of farms will meet the challenge? It seems likely that most of the demand will be filled by large, often family-controlled concerns, as has been the trend for decades. As of 2012, some 66% of U.S. farm production by dollar value was accounted for by just 4% of the country’s farms. The century-long process of mechanization that has steadily reduced the numbers of farm workers has moderated in recent decades. The farms of the future are increasingly high-tech and run by highly skilled professionals and technicians. Simply put, large producers tend to be better suited to adapt to change, and particularly at marketing abroad. But at the same time, we can expect growth in more specialized fields, such as organic fruits, vegetables and meat as well as wine and specialty products, like olive oil. In fact two California areas known for artisanal production have logged considerable growth in recent years and placed highly on our list: Napa (13th) and Santa Maria-Santa Barbara (16th). In future years, we can expect that many other areas, even in the heartland, may look to these niches for profits. The notion of a stable peasantry, so important in a country like France, and the romantic attachment to farming among many urbanities, does not apply to most of rural America. As de Tocqueville noted in the first half of the 19th century, agriculture in America is a business. “Almost all farmers of the United States,” he observed,” combine industry with agriculture; most of them make agriculture a trade.” The idea of living on the land may impress old hippies, urban exiles and hipsters, but for most U.S. agricultural communities, the attachment comes from producing jobs, incomes and opportunities for local residents. This may not be as utopian an approach as some might like, but it has brought more food to more tables than any farming economy in the world. Rank Region (MSA) Score 2004 – 2014 % Job Change 2012 – 2014 % Job Change 2014 Wages, Salaries, & Proprietor Earnings 2004-2014 Earnings Change 2014 Location Quotient 2014 Sector Jobs 1 Madera, CA 63.3 36.6% 9.2% $ 26,557 15.7% 11.5 14,730 2 Decatur, IL 59.7 7.7% 1.8% $ 85,907 13.8% 4.4 5,768 3 Merced, CA 58.8 14.9% 10.2% $ 33,383 3.9% 11.2 22,770 4 St. Joseph, MO-KS 58.4 159.9% -0.1% $ 44,800 11.9% 3.5 5,333 5 Yakima, WA 56.9 27.9% 2.3% $ 27,075 14.2% 12.0 34,537 6 Bakersfield, CA 55.2 44.6% 10.7% $ 26,594 3.2% 8.3 70,559 7 Visalia-Porterville, CA 54.7 14.2% 2.9% $ 30,536 12.0% 11.1 44,799 8 Salinas, CA 53.8 17.2% 5.8% $ 32,509 -0.9% 11.7 57,221 9 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 53.0 2.8% 1.0% $ 74,932 24.5% 0.5 30,758 10 Hanford-Corcoran, CA 52.3 0.7% 1.3% $ 38,676 14.1% 9.3 11,559 11 Grand Island, NE 51.4 32.3% -0.2% $ 41,632 14.5% 7.0 8,158 12 Evansville, IN-KY 50.6 21.2% 10.3% $ 46,548 12.5% 1.3 5,041 13 Napa, CA 50.0 15.5% 4.2% $ 51,483 -4.8% 7.7 15,008 14 Waterloo-Cedar Falls, IA 47.0 6.9% -0.9% $ 62,298 5.1% 4.7 11,155 15 Modesto, CA 46.6 -2.9% 1.7% $ 42,215 10.3% 6.2 28,978 16 Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA 46.1 23.2% 8.0% $ 29,722 5.3% 4.5 24,148 17 Chico, CA 46.0 19.6% 8.0% $ 37,430 7.6% 2.6 5,485 18 Yuma, AZ 45.6 -18.7% -1.6% $ 27,921 22.7% 7.9 14,062 19 Santa Rosa, CA 45.3 7.9% 7.6% $ 41,952 3.5% 3.3 17,864 20 Kennewick-Richland, WA 44.9 29.8% 1.2% $ 29,603 8.2% 6.3 19,308 21 Wenatchee, WA 44.4 10.2% 0.0% $ 21,851 4.8% 10.1 14,404 22 Gettysburg, PA 44.4 16.9% 2.2% $ 37,146 2.9% 6.1 6,032 23 Davenport-Moline-Rock Island, IA-IL 44.4 10.4% 0.8% $ 61,311 3.5% 2.6 12,469 24 Walla Walla, WA 43.9 2.5% -1.4% $ 32,919 6.3% 8.6 6,907 25 Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH 43.6 27.1% 8.2% $ 46,168 2.2% 0.4 27,025 26 Grand Rapids-Wyoming, MI 43.3 16.8% 6.7% $ 37,050 9.5% 1.6 20,959 27 Sioux Falls, SD 43.2 0.4% 4.2% $ 43,743 11.9% 1.9 7,326 28 Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN 43.0 -15.2% -1.1% $ 53,691 24.1% 0.7 11,775 29 New Orleans-Metairie, LA 42.8 -8.0% 1.4% $ 59,275 13.3% 0.5 6,968 30 Omaha-Council Bluffs, NE-IA 42.0 5.4% 3.9% $ 46,590 7.3% 1.6 20,208 31 Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA 41.9 2.0% 2.9% $ 33,401 10.8% 3.9 11,167 32 Canton-Massillon, OH 41.7 25.1% 8.6% $ 40,484 -2.6% 1.4 6,009 33 Fresno, CA 41.5 4.0% -0.3% $ 29,168 7.6% 6.8 66,982 34 Amarillo, TX 41.5 14.7% 4.2% $ 38,692 6.1% 2.4 7,411 35 Des Moines-West Des Moines, IA 41.4 5.4% 0.1% $ 59,584 4.8% 1.5 13,798 36 Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN 41.3 3.6% 7.8% $ 49,291 -0.2% 0.6 16,821 37 Kalamazoo-Portage, MI 41.1 6.4% 5.0% $ 32,065 12.5% 1.9 7,031 38 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 40.9 -1.5% 3.3% $ 49,930 8.6% 0.8 39,300 39 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 40.8 -7.3% 6.5% $ 51,866 3.5% 0.3 21,060 40 Birmingham-Hoover, AL 40.5 1.3% 10.9% $ 38,714 0.3% 0.5 6,401 41 San Diego-Carlsbad, CA 39.9 4.6% 10.1% $ 33,886 3.3% 0.5 19,359 42 Bellingham, WA 39.7 19.8% 4.5% $ 30,171 6.5% 2.3 5,441 43 Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA 39.4 26.2% 0.2% $ 31,156 7.8% 3.5 30,982 44 Appleton, WI 39.3 7.6% 0.5% $ 43,222 5.0% 2.9 9,032 45 Cedar Rapids, IA 39.1 7.1% 1.2% $ 60,098 -4.5% 1.6 5,922 46 Gainesville, GA 39.1 19.7% 4.2% $ 34,848 -9.1% 5.1 10,420 47 Columbus, OH 39.1 -15.7% 0.0% $ 60,747 7.4% 0.6 14,524 48 Peoria, IL 39.0 -5.6% -4.0% $ 48,075 20.9% 1.1 5,132 49 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 39.0 -5.0% 9.2% $ 38,179 2.5% 0.4 11,750 50 Grand Forks, ND-MN 38.9 -10.8% -4.2% $ 39,268 19.3% 3.5 5,303 51 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 38.8 -2.2% 6.5% $ 37,495 7.5% 0.4 22,154 52 San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles-Arroyo Grande, CA 38.6 26.0% -0.7% $ 32,695 11.1% 2.5 7,682 53 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 38.6 2.6% 7.1% $ 34,455 4.8% 1.0 29,146 54 Sioux City, IA-NE-SD 38.5 -4.7% -1.0% $ 42,084 -1.9% 5.8 13,565 55 Greeley, CO 37.6 11.8% 2.1% $ 32,324 -3.4% 4.8 12,935 56 Reading, PA 37.5 5.0% 5.8% $ 38,675 -2.7% 1.9 8,553 57 Fargo, ND-MN 37.5 3.9% -3.3% $ 53,253 6.0% 1.9 6,805 58 Joplin, MO 37.4 -21.2% -1.4% $ 40,138 15.9% 2.4 5,003 59 Yuba City, CA 37.2 -14.0% -3.1% $ 32,690 13.9% 4.6 6,050 60 Green Bay, WI 37.1 20.6% 3.3% $ 36,437 -4.0% 2.8 12,150 61 Stockton-Lodi, CA 37.1 -2.4% -2.4% $ 35,861 8.1% 4.3 25,296 62 Salem, OR 36.7 3.2% 3.2% $ 26,949 1.6% 4.0 17,217 63 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 36.7 -7.5% 2.2% $ 51,126 2.0% 0.6 67,224 64 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 36.7 0.6% 5.6% $ 39,415 2.7% 0.3 16,642 65 Wichita, KS 36.5 7.1% 3.1% $ 51,114 -5.5% 0.9 7,260 66 St. Cloud, MN 36.3 13.1% 3.6% $ 34,545 -0.8% 2.2 5,877 67 Richmond, VA 36.2 -5.2% 8.2% $ 38,672 -2.3% 0.4 5,900 68 Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT 35.7 12.0% 4.8% $ 37,100 0.6% 0.4 6,376 69 Rochester, NY 35.3 5.7% 5.6% $ 36,398 -3.1% 1.1 14,768 70 Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC 35.2 -0.2% 3.3% $ 40,743 2.3% 0.5 15,328 71 Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD 35.1 13.4% 2.8% $ 46,016 -3.7% 0.4 13,801 72 Vineland-Bridgeton, NJ 34.8 34.2% -2.9% $ 36,070 -4.2% 3.9 6,008 73 El Centro, CA 34.6 -5.7% -9.0% $ 27,952 10.9% 7.3 12,420 74 Ogden-Clearfield, UT 34.5 33.6% 2.7% $ 33,771 -2.4% 0.8 5,185 75 Jackson, MS 34.4 -14.0% -1.2% $ 36,223 16.1% 0.8 5,237 76 Kansas City, MO-KS 33.8 -9.3% -0.9% $ 50,538 2.8% 0.5 14,001 77 Harrisonburg, VA 33.6 -10.4% 0.0% $ 34,844 -4.3% 4.6 7,585 78 Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson, IN 33.5 12.4% -0.9% $ 51,997 -4.9% 0.6 16,132 79 Memphis, TN-MS-AR 33.5 -17.5% -2.3% $ 55,272 3.0% 0.6 9,734 80 Boise City, ID 33.3 -5.1% -1.8% $ 36,627 8.3% 1.7 12,560 81 San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 32.9 -2.1% 2.8% $ 44,038 -3.7% 0.4 21,369 82 Fort Smith, AR-OK 32.6 -22.2% -2.3% $ 34,447 8.0% 3.0 8,706 83 Rochester, MN 32.5 9.2% -0.4% $ 36,864 -1.1% 1.8 5,470 84 San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 32.5 10.4% -4.9% $ 39,201 12.2% 0.5 11,860 85 Las Cruces, NM 32.4 -12.9% -1.1% $ 23,719 12.3% 2.7 5,506 86 Salt Lake City, UT 32.3 -1.1% -0.1% $ 39,698 4.4% 0.3 6,090 87 Harrisburg-Carlisle, PA 32.2 -19.9% -2.2% $ 47,083 5.2% 0.9 7,431 88 Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO 31.8 -2.2% 2.6% $ 48,162 -9.4% 0.4 14,651 89 Sacramento–Roseville–Arden-Arcade, CA 31.6 9.9% 1.0% $ 38,510 -3.0% 0.7 16,298 90 Lancaster, PA 31.2 -18.0% -2.3% $ 45,489 -2.5% 2.4 15,195 91 Goldsboro, NC 30.9 -6.0% -0.2% $ 31,551 -6.1% 3.9 5,053 92 Knoxville, TN 30.8 1.2% -0.9% $ 36,956 2.9% 0.6 5,745 93 Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO 30.7 -14.2% -2.8% $ 33,593 3.0% 3.0 17,130 94 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 30.7 -13.6% 3.3% $ 43,829 -8.4% 0.6 14,113 95 Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI 30.0 -7.5% 4.3% $ 33,166 -3.8% 0.2 10,978 96 Providence-Warwick, RI-MA 30.0 -5.5% 0.7% $ 33,580 2.7% 0.3 6,187 97 Columbia, SC 29.5 0.0% 0.8% $ 32,795 -1.6% 0.9 8,184 98 Urban Honolulu, HI 29.5 -6.3% 2.8% $ 29,767 -1.1% 0.6 7,576 99 York-Hanover, PA 29.5 -1.9% -2.3% $ 43,359 -4.7% 1.4 6,338 100 St. Louis, MO-IL 29.3 -19.6% -7.4% $ 55,033 4.5% 0.6 20,054 101 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 29.3 0.9% 2.0% $ 42,074 -9.8% 0.3 63,059 102 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 29.1 -0.7% 1.0% $ 32,275 -1.1% 0.5 31,740 103 Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC 29.0 -26.5% -4.2% $ 45,284 6.8% 0.4 8,457 104 Cleveland-Elyria, OH 28.7 -7.1% 2.1% $ 35,946 -5.8% 0.5 13,914 105 Nashville-Davidson–Murfreesboro–Franklin, TN 27.4 3.0% -3.8% $ 39,609 -1.3% 0.5 10,847 106 Lexington-Fayette, KY 27.3 -15.2% -6.2% $ 32,557 9.7% 1.4 9,763 107 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 27.3 -15.0% -0.8% $ 32,745 0.5% 0.7 26,357 108 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 26.9 -6.9% 0.2% $ 40,376 -9.6% 0.5 38,965 109 Pittsburgh, PA 26.7 -20.2% 0.1% $ 34,121 -0.5% 0.3 7,765 110 Raleigh, NC 26.4 -17.6% 1.0% $ 40,219 -9.4% 0.4 6,022 111 Oklahoma City, OK 26.3 -12.3% -5.2% $ 37,948 4.6% 0.4 6,099 112 Lakeland-Winter Haven, FL 25.6 -14.9% -8.7% $ 43,105 -0.4% 2.2 11,733 113 Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL 25.2 -4.8% -0.2% $ 33,141 -7.5% 0.4 12,851 114 Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, NY 25.1 -21.6% -1.4% $ 41,848 -8.4% 0.6 7,851 115 Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, FL 24.9 -22.9% -8.2% $ 25,014 13.7% 1.9 6,572 116 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 24.7 -9.1% 0.0% $ 47,118 -18.2% 0.3 28,697 117 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 24.6 -19.1% -3.7% $ 43,853 -5.8% 0.4 59,217 118 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 23.6 -14.5% 1.3% $ 26,027 -7.7% 0.6 20,043 119 Chattanooga, TN-GA 22.8 -18.2% -8.1% $ 42,812 -2.2% 0.9 5,466 120 Salisbury, MD-DE 22.3 -13.6% -9.3% $ 32,913 -2.2% 2.7 10,914 121 McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX 22.0 -38.2% -11.7% $ 26,476 20.1% 1.1 7,330 122 North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, FL 20.7 -5.3% -4.6% $ 32,039 -11.5% 1.3 9,269 123 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 18.9 -19.7% -3.8% $ 31,162 -8.9% 0.1 10,945 124 Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, PA-NJ 13.2 -16.4% -10.8% $ 49,598 -24.4% 0.6 5,176 To determine the top regions for agribusiness, Mark Schill of Praxis Strategy Group, mark@praxissg.com, examined employment data in 68 ag- and food production-related industries, including crop and animal production. Only metropolitan areas with at least 5,000 total jobs in the 28 industries are included in the analysis. The five measures are equally-weighted. Location quotient is the local share of jobs in agribusiness divided by the national share in the same industry group. Data is from Economic Modeling Specialists, Intl (EMSI). Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is also executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The New Class Conflict is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He is also author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Mark Schill is a community process consultant, economic strategist, and public policy researcher with Praxis Strategy Group.

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