By John Pappalardo
Last month in this space I dove into a pool that is surprisingly deep — the economic impact of Massachusetts fisheries.
Culling through excellent reports from the Division of Marine Fisheries, the bottom line is that in 2021, Massachusetts landings showed a value of $802 million “ex-vessel,” meaning the total amount fishermen were paid for their catch, all species, before that harvest was re-sold in markets or restaurants.
It’s a mindboggling number on its own, and got me to thinking about context: How does this fit into the bigger food production economy, particularly the massive national farming effort?
I tracked down an annual survey created by the United States Department of Agriculture. It’s called “Crop Values,” and breaks down the value of different harvests across every state as well as summing for the nation, showing what farmers actually get paid for what they grow – pretty much identical to what we call “ex-vessel” in the fisheries. The latest one I found is from 2020, so the comparisons are one year off, but still close, still interesting as hell.
I zeroed in on crop values in the same ballpark as our state’s fishing values, meaning around $800 million a year.
For example, the value of all principal crops harvested in the entire state of South Carolina in 2020 was $783 million – less than Massachusetts’ fish landings.
The total value of harvest in another strong growing state, Alabama: $878 million.
How about the total value of commercial harvest in our own state in 2020? $86 million, meaning little more than 10 percent of the maritime value.
That’s an eye-opening comparison. As the grow local/buy local movement continues to gain strength, here’s hoping that figure escalates and that there is more connection between on-land and at-sea marketing.
Here are some fun one-crop, one-state stats:
Rice grown and harvested in mega-California: $847 million.
Potatoes in Washington State (not Idaho but still a big potato-growing area): $780 million.
Sugar cane harvested to make sugar in Florida: $623 million.
The USDA also produces nationwide figures. Again, I teased out ones in our range:
Barley in the USA: $753 million.
Broccoli: $875 million.
Carrots: $716 million.
Sweet corn (meaning not animal feed): $743 million.
Sweet potatoes: $726 million.
Tangerines and mandarins: $812 million.
Here’s a good one: Tobacco, $819 million, nationwide almost identical to the value of fishing in our state alone.
Again for context, understand that corn production in the United States, a powerhouse agricultural sector that dwarfs the rest, mostly for livestock feed or pressed for oil, was worth $61 billion – that’s billion. Nebraska alone accounted for $7.6 billion.
OK, I’ll stop now.
These intriguing figures show nothing about expenses, or profits. They don’t tell us how much a farmer needs to invest – land, seed, equipment, labor, irrigation, fuel, transportation, fertilizers, probably pesticides. We don’t know how those might relate to what a fisherman needs to spend, though I suspect that all in, farmers have bigger overheads.
Neither do they compare sales prices, though it’s very safe to say that in general, fish sells for a lot more per pound than grain, for example.
They also don’t reveal what profits and margins are created once all of these foodstuffs are moved into the marketplace. We know that farmers and fishermen share a belief that often is fact; their hard work is not always rewarded at top dollar, while profit margins are built into every link in the chain as food moves to consumers.
What they do show, however, is relative economic value. Gross producer revenues define how much money is generated in local, regional, national, and international economies, revealing a sense of scale and how much impact a sector can have.
Again, independent farmers and fishermen share a belief:
Keeping that value closer to home, circling and swirling among neighbors and local businesses, is healthier than aggregating and sending profits into corporate silos here or offshore.
Then there’s one more common denominator all these numbers conjure:
Farmers and fishermen, appreciated or not, feed the world.
John Pappalardo is CEO of The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance