The USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture has been released. According to a Morning Ag Clips report, the “Ag of the middle continues to shrink.” As quoted from the article: “A preliminary review by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) of the newly released 2017 Census of Agriculture found that beneath the new metrics and data points was a familiar takeaway – the continued consolidation of U.S. agriculture was taking more medium-sized family farms out of the game and concentrating wealth and power among fewer, larger agribusinesses.”
Here are key highlights from the USDA’s 2017 Census website:
- There are 2.04 million farms and ranches (down 3.2 percent from 2012) with an average size of 441 acres (up 1.6 percent) on 900 million acres (down 1.6 percent).
- The 273,000 smallest (1-9 acres) farms make up 0.1 percent of all farmland while the 85,127 largest (2,000 or more acres) farms make up 58 percent of farmland.
- Just 105,453 farms produced 75 percent of all sales in 2017, down from 119,908 in 2012.
- Of the 2.04 million farms and ranches, the 76,865 making $1 million or more in 2017 represent just over 2/3 of the $389 billion in total value of production while the 1.56 million operations making under $50,000 represent just 2.9 percent.
So US farms are getting larger, and fewer farms are producing most agricultural output. Should we be concerned?
Some commentators believe that middle-scale farms are essential and that their decline or loss is something to be lamented. In particular, some argue that farmers operating small and middle-sized farms are better stewards of the land and care more about farming, the environment and their communities than those running large farm operations.
An example is the American farmer and poet Wendell Berry. In his book, The Unsettling of America, Berry writes that “the best farming requires a farmer–a husbandman, a nurture–not a technician or businessman.” Continuing:
“The concentration of the farmland into larger and larger holdings and fewer and fewer hands–with the consequent increase of overhead, debt, and dependence on machines–is thus a matter of complex significance, and its agricultural significance cannot be disentangled from its cultural significance. It forces a profound revolution in the farmer’s mind: once his investment in land and machines is large enough, he must forsake the values of husbandry and assume those of finance and technology. Thenceforth his thinking is not determined by agricultural responsibility, but by financial accountability and the capacities of his machines.”
Does this mean that we should protect and help these farmers or give the preferential treatment over other farmers?
Several years ago, my colleague, Mary Hendrickson, and I did a study entitled, Are Farmers of the Middle Distinctively “Good Stewards”? We asked: “Are middle-scale family farms, or ‘farmers of the middle,’ better agricultural stewards than small and large scale producers? That is, do ‘farmers of the middle’ provide important social, ecological, and political benefits to society that small-scale, part-time farmers, and large-scale agribusiness farms do not?” We did not find any evidence to suggest that middle-scale farmers are noteworthy or better or deserving of the designation “good” farmer relative to farmers of large-scale operations. We did find that middle-scale farmers are more anxious than other farmers, which we attributed to structural and economic conditions in agriculture.
I note that the 2017 Census of Agriculture also found that most farms and ranches (96 percent, in fact) are family owned. Maybe it is family ownership rather than corporate ownership that matters more. That is, maybe we should protect or promote family ownership over corporate ownership. But what if corporate farms are operated by families? Does that matter? Good research questions for another time.