Without offering it as rhetorical leverage for my policy preference on the question of the state government’s purchase and resale of farmland (a sort of reverse flipping, because the state enters the deal planning to sell at a loss to taxpayers), the trends of farming in Rhode Island piqued my interest earlier today. In a Twitter exchange with Matt Tracy, yesterday, he’d noted “unprecedented 10+ yrs of growth in RI’s ag sector,” and this morning somebody else pointed out the following paragraph (emphasis added) in Alex Kuffner’s front page Providence Journal article (which I mentioned here):
Rhode Island farms have cultural value as part of the state’s vibrant food scene, but they also generate a lot of money. In 2015, agriculture accounted for 2,563 jobs in the state and contributed $239 million to the economy, according to the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association. Both figures increased 40 percent from 2012.
The obvious meaning that readers would take from that paragraph and its closing sentence is that farming has grown hugely over just a few recent years, but that’s not what Kuffner’s source says. The study that he appears to be citing doesn’t present a new round of data; rather, URI Natural Resource Economics Professor Thomas Sproul’s intent is to provide more-accurate data for 2012. The 40% increase to “2012 Agricultural Census figures” is also for 2012 data, not 2015 or 2016 data, as one would infer from Kuffner’s report. That is, the statement should be that “both figures are 40% bigger than they were once reported,” which means something different altogether.
Even with a quick glance at the related chart and text highlighted in the document, the Projo reporter should have caught this error, but he’s also wrong that it applies to both jobs and money. The dollar output was revised to be four times the original amount (and it’s not for “economic impact,” by the way, but straight sales). If he’d noticed that, he might have questioned whether the data really showed that farming revenue had grown by a factor of four over just a few years.
Even a quick Internet search would have turned up reason to question the finding, anyway. Writing in ecoRI in 2014, Tim Faulkner reported that the number of farms increased by 24 (2%) from 2007 to 2012, which was more than the national drop of 4%, but less than the New England increase of 5%. However, RI’s increase was largely in small farms of 9 acres or less, and the state Dept. of Environmental Management’s chief of agriculture wasn’t “certain yet if the shift is due to an economic slowdown or greater food production,” causing a change from “nurseries, turf and flower farming” to “fruit, vegetable, livestock and aquaculture farming.”
A nursery sold as two vegetable farms would double the number counted, so it’s not clear whether the number of farms is a helpful metric. More relevant to the present discussion is this:
Total market value of sales declined 9 percent from 2007. Crop sales declined 12 percent, and livestock sales increased 4 percent.
That doesn’t look like “unprecedented growth” to me.