America has fewer and larger farms. Here’s why that matters
Welcome to our series on the changing face of agriculture: Farm Size Matters! Over the next month, we hope to give you a comprehensive picture of the state of American farms today: all of the fun (what it’s like to date in farm country), failure (how, despite all efforts, a farmer can lose his farm), fame (an interview with Willie Nelson), and facts (a fascinating ag subsidies explainer).
So, why does farm size matter? As the total number of farms goes down, the number of big* farms is going up — and this shift hurts rural America. According to an analysis by Food and Water Watch: “Communities with more medium- and smaller-sized farms have more shared prosperity, including higher incomes, lower unemployment, and lower income inequality, than communities with larger farms tied to often-distant agribusinesses.”
In strictly economic terms, U.S. agriculture has followed a pretty unsurprising path. Better technology leads to greater crop yields, which in turn mean lower prices and larger farms. Our economic system distorts competition and fosters consolidation — and then we act surprised when farmers follow the rules of the game in order to survive.
Today, we have a ton of tiny farms — and yet when it comes to land, “the top 10 percent of farms in terms of size account for more than 70 percent of cropland in the United States; the top 2.2 percent alone takes up more than a third,” wrote Roberto A. Ferdman in The Washington Post.
The editors of the fantastic book Food and the Mid-Level Farm show how that has paved the road toward an increasingly polarized farm-scape:
If current trends continue, the structure of U.S. agriculture will encompass a small number of immense corporate-linked or owned farms, and large numbers of small direct-market operations. The former system of production will produce the vast majority of the food most Americans will consume.
My translation? Small farmers rule, but if we really want to change our agricultural system, we have to look beyond the farmers market.
And that’s what we plan to do in this series. During this first week, we’ll talk to commodity farmers, explore the effects of farm loss, and tell bad jokes to Willie Nelson. Next week, we’ll take a deep look at how politics have affected farming — from ag subsidies to racism in loan policy to marijuana regulations. After that, we’re exploring our food infrastructure and talking to the oft-ignored, but very important, middlemen. And finally, in week four, we’re reporting on the root of all evil, as well as the root of all root vegetable operations: money.
Once it’s all over, we hope that you, the oh-so-important reader and eater, not only understand why farm size matters, but also what you can do to make sure those farmers in the middle don’t disappear.
*A note on the numbers in the video: Between 1997 and 2012, the smallest category lost 107,732 farms (of 1,699,536 total in ’97), the middle category lost 83,611 (of 445,932), and the largest category gained 84,770 (to 1997’s 70,508). We’re assuming that most of the large category gains came from the middle, and that the middle gained quite a few farms from the smallest category as $50,000 in gross annual sales is a very low benchmark (gross sales don’t take into account operating costs like seeds and equipment, rent or mortgage payments, labor, etc.). Just because a farm jumped from the middle category to the largest category does not make it a factory farm — it could still have trouble competing with mega-farms. And, meanwhile, a farmers-market-scale farm could easily gross more than $50,000 a year. The methodology may not be perfect, but overall, both gross annual sales numbers and cropland acreage stats show a hollowing out of agriculture of the middle.
More stories in this series:
The country icon talks 30 years of Farm Aid, pot legalization, and more.
If you actually sit down and talk with a commodity farmer, they start to sound a lot like the typical small farmer — only with a gazilion times more corn.
To get a real idea of what a farmer’s search for love looks like, we had some very candid conversations with six farmers across the country.
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