Agriculture Still Isn’t Number One

Lowman Henry leads off a recent commentary with the legend that Agriculture is Pennsylvania’s “number one industry” and employs nearly one million workers.

Readers will recall that this is one of my pet peeves. I believe that at some point, a lobbyist and a lawmaker conspired to pass a resolution that every politician must always say “Agriculture is #1.” The claim is the basis for political pandering, not good policy.

This is not meant to demean farmers, but the fact is that farming is not Pennsylvania’s largest industry. According to BLS data, “Farming, Fishing, and Forestry” is the 22nd highest occupation in terms of employment… out of 22 categories. According to BEA data, “Agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting” is the 19th largest industry in contribution to state GDP… out of 19 categories. (Click here for a spreadsheet)

So where does the “1 million jobs” come from? The explanation is very simple—the PA Department of Agriculture is trumpeting everyone who works with food in any way to bolster its own importance. This includes food processing, manufacturers, truck drivers, and even restaurants and grocery stores (by far, the two largest sources of “agribusiness jobs”).

Here is a taxpayer-funded study from 2005 showing how the state makes claims about the scope of agriculture. Their definition of agribusiness reads as follows (emphasis added):

“The food and fiber system comprises the economic activities of the farms and the firms that assemble, process, and transform raw agricultural commodities into final products for distribution to U.S. and foreign consumers. The food and fiber system includes all economic activity that supports farm production and the conversion of raw farm products to consumable goods—for example, machinery repair, fertilizer production, farming itself, food processing and manufacturing, transportation, wholesale and retail trade, distribution of food and apparel, and eating establishments. The income and employment generated within the food and fiber system is the income earned and jobs provided by these firms.”
Source: Economic Research Service

If you read the report, the largest segment of “agribusiness”, in terms of value, is manufacturing. Only 3% of jobs in “agribusiness” are in agriculture as properly understood.

Lowman’s commentary is correct on the burden of regulations and taxes on farmers—but to suggest that our state agriculture policy is what’s keeping people working at McDonald’s and Subway and Giant Eagle and John Deere is nonsense.