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The disappearing middle: Mid-sized farms that once supported rural communities are fading away

The disappearing middle: Mid-sized farms that once supported rural communities are fading away

The mid-sized farms that once supported rural communities are fading away, but some farmers are finding ways to survive by hopping off the commodity ag bandwagon.

By Heidi Marttila-Losure


It’s not difficult to see the dominant trendline in agriculture when nearly every view of the landscape provides evidence.

The tractors and planting rigs that were out in the fields this spring were double the size they were a generation ago; a farmer can cover hundreds of acres in a day. The rows of emerging corn, planted very accurately with GPS, stretch far into the distance. The majority of the farmsteads that housed the families that settled on the land in the late 1800s and early 1900s have long been vacant, and some are being cleared to give a few more acres of farmland.

Simply put, there are bigger farms, and fewer farmers.

The percentage of the workforce employed in agriculture in the United States declined from 22 percent to 2 percent from 1930 to 2002, and since then it’s fallen still further, to something less than 1 percent. Through about 2000, the trendlines of farm size and the number over farms over the last century neatly mirror one another: As the number farms went down, the size of the average farm went up.

Source: Compiled by Economic Research Service, USDA, using data from Census of Agriculture, Census of Population and Census of the United States.

Another trend starting in 2007 is not as obvious in the rural Dakotas: Nationwide, the number of very small farms has also increased. Many of these farms are located closer to urban markets and do not support a family just on the farmwork; the people living there also have off-farm jobs elsewhere.

While the number of very large and very small farms increases, the middle-sized farms are disappearing rapidly. “These farms and enterprise of the middle have traditionally constituted the heart of American agriculture,” according to a white paper by the Agriculture of the Middle Project, which was formed to raise awareness about the loss of these farms and to promote research to find solutions.

The larger farms tend to be vertically integrated, growing bulk commodities for vast supply chains, and the small farms have found a niche selling their products directly to consumers. That leaves the mid-sized farms without an obvious role: “They are too small to compete in the highly consolidated commodity markets and too large and commoditized to sell in the direct markets,” according to the Ag of the Middle white paper.

For the immediate future, the majority of farmland in the U.S. is managed by midsized farms, but Fred Kirschenmann, one of the founders of the Ag of the Middle project, predicts that it won’t be that way for long. If the current trends continue, most of these farms will be gone in 10 years.


What happens when the middle falls out?

Some have argued that losing mid-sized farms is not a problem. After all, American farmers are producing plenty of food—more than is needed domestically and, if distribution problems could be overcome, more than is needed globally. If food production can be done that much more efficiently now than it was in 1930, when 22 percent of the U.S. population was involved in farming, what’s wrong with that?

If all that the nation wanted farmers to do was produce food, the U.S. would clearly be far down the road of progress. From the founding of the nation, however, farms have been viewed as more than food factories. Thomas Jefferson described small landholders as “the most precious part of a state” in 1785, and many of the nation’s core agricultural policies have followed that lead.

It is because of the other benefits that mid-sized farms provide to society that the Agriculture of the Middle Project, as well as a variety of other groups, are trying to find ways to keep these farms viable. These advocates cite a number of reasons for keeping mid-sized farms at the heart of American agriculture.


Mid-Sized Farms Provide Rural People With a Meaningful Livelihood and Way of Life.

When fewer people are required to do the work as an industry changes with advancing technology, some people end up without jobs. Changes in farming have been no different in their effect on the workforce. In the 1970s, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz saw fewer farmers as a necessary step in making U.S. agriculture dominant globally, famously telling farmers to “get big or get out.”

The problem with this strategy is that not all farmers could get big, even if they wanted to, and were then forced out of agriculture.

In other industries, displaced workers can hope for work nearby, but in rural areas, communities are built around agriculture. When there are fewer farmers, job opportunities in surrounding communities also decline. Finding employment can require a long commute or leaving a rural area altogether. While larger-scale agriculture does create some job opportunities, these jobs tend to be more like factory work, with lower rates of pay and more repetitive tasks: “About 45% of all hired farmworkers aged 25 years and older are low-wage earners who earn less than the poverty threshold for a family of four,” according to “A Report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production: Community and Social Impacts of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.”

“The shrinking number of farms in rural America no longer represents people liberated from the drudgery of agricultural toil,” writes Diane Bell Mayerfeld, sustainable agriculture coordinator with University of Wisconsin Extension, in a 2004 report entitled “A Matter of Scale: Small Farms in the North Central Region.” “Instead it brings to mind families forced to leave the land and work they love.”


Mid-Sized Farms Generally Make Decisions Based On More Than the Bottom Line.

Profit is an important factor in decisions for all business operations, including farms of all sizes, because survival is at stake: Without some profit, the business or farm cannot continue to operate. But smaller farms run by a family that lives on the land generally use other factors in their decision-making as well: They are not as likely to choose a way of farming that makes their own lives unpleasant or unhealthy, for example, and they are more likely to consider how decisions of today affect their ability to pass on the farm to the next generation in good condition.

Those factors don’t figure into the decision-making equation with large-scale agriculture, argue Jon D. Hanson and John R. Hendrickson, researchers from the USDA Ag Research Service in Mandan, N.D. “In the industrialization model, the predominant decision-making criterion has become the economic bottom line,” they write in a 2009 paper called “Toward a Sustainable Agriculture.”

They list a variety of ecological, socioeconomic and health costs associated with the industrialization of agriculture, such as declining soil productivity, disparate farm incomes, and overuse of antibiotics in animal production. “Without a direct cost to the production system,” Hanson and Hendrickson write, “the industrial model does not view these changes in ag systems as problems.”


Rural Communities Get More Economic Benefit From Mid-Sized Farms.

Large farms take advantage of economies of scale and buy what they need in massive quantities. For many of these purchases, they go to larger communities or directly to suppliers to negotiate better prices. In large-scale livestock operations, many of the inputs are part of the contract with the corporation, so there is not even an option of shopping in the local community.

Small and mid-sized farms, on the other hand, are more likely to spend money in their local communities. “Farms with a gross income of $100,000 made nearly 95% of their expenditures locally,” according to the Pew Commission report. On the other hand, farms with gross incomes higher than $900,000 spent less than 20% locally.

When money is spent locally, it has a multiplier effect—a dollar spent at the local elevator or hardware store is more likely to be spent again at the grocery store or restaurant. In vertically integrated farming systems, those dollars go to shareholders who likely do not reside in the rural farming communities. The money leaves and does not return.


The Social Fabric of Rural Communities is Stronger When Farms are Smaller.

Since the economic ties of the community are not as strong when farms are larger, it is not really a surprise that the social ties in the community weaken with larger farm size as well. Large-scale farmers are in a constant competition with one another for more land, which can reduce neighborliness, and when farmers don’t shop locally anymore, their relationships to the small towns near their operations wither. Quite often, farmers expand into communities where they have had no historic social ties, and there is no incentive to build any.

“Everyone who has done careful research on farm size, residency of agricultural landowners and social conditions in the rural community finds the same relationship: as farm size and absentee ownership increase, social conditions in the community deteriorate,” according to University of California-Davis sociologist Dean MacCannell.

The social capital in rural communities, or the “glue” of trust and interdependence that keeps communities connected, declines. “Numerous studies have shown lower quality of life, greater poverty and crime, lack of social services, and lowered civic participation in communities dominated by fewer larger farms as opposed to numerous small farms,” according to the Pew Commission report.


Smaller Farmers Tend to Be Better Stewards of the Land.

Wes Jackson, the founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kans., calls for a better ratio of eyes to acres, as eyes tend to take better care of the acres they survey when there aren’t as many acres to look at.

In the book Ecological Literacy, ecologist David Orr describes it this way:

The ecological knowledge and level of attention necessary to good farming limits the size of farms. Beyond that limit, the “eyes to acres” ratio is insufficient for land husbandry. At some larger scale it becomes harder to detect subtle differences in soil types, changes in plant communities and wildlife habitat, and variations in topography and microclimate. The memory of past events like floods and droughts fades. As scale increases, the farmer becomes a manager who must simplify complexity and homogenize differences in order to control.

Jim Kopriva, a rancher near Raymond, explains that just being on the land increases the likelihood that a farmer will take better care of the land, because if there is a problem, he or she will eventually get tired of looking at it and take steps to fix it. (Read about the Kopriva family here.)


Small and Mid-Sized Farms Are More Likely to Preserve Biodiversity.

Since specialization is part of the way that larger farms become more efficient, larger farms produce a smaller variety of crops or livestock. Corn and soybeans are predominant in the fields of the Midwest; in livestock production, just a few breeds make up the vast majority of animals raised.

In the Dakotas, vertical integration in industries located elsewhere, such as dairy or hogs, has led to a lack of diversity here. Farms that once had chickens, milk cows, hogs, horses, goats, and sheep, and that raised a variety of crops in part to support those animals, no longer have good ways to make these smaller-scale endeavors profitable. The Dakotas still have one industry that involves keeping animals on a relatively small scale: Cow-calf operations. Unlike hogs and chickens, beef cattle are not typically owned or controlled by the processor from birth to finish. It is more cost effective to calve on pasture, and because processors are not in control of most pasture land, the Dakotas are able to retain that piece of diversity in the landscape.

Maintaining biodiversity is like a broad-based insurance policy: If something goes wrong in one sector, there is likely to be something in another branch that can compensate for it, or help to solve the problem. “Many ecologists now believe that richly diverse ecosystems are more resilient and better able to recover from such stresses as drought or human-induced habitat destruction than less diverse systems,” according to Vicky Cullen of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Without that insurance policy, the whole system faces a higher risk of significant failures under stress.

These potential crop failures have real economic costs, so maintaining biodiversity “insurance” can also be a shrewd business decision.


Small and Mid-Sized Farmers Preserve Wisdom of Specific Places.

Years ago, when a farmer passed on his farm to his son (and most of the time it was a son), the transfer typically happened after a period of years working together, and knowledge of the place and its history was transferred along with the land. That knowledge served as a base for ingenuity and creative problem-solving, and the son built on that knowledge and passed on an even richer store of it to the next generation.

When land is farmed on a large scale, that intimate knowledge of a place does not transfer to farm operators. Management decisions are made for all of the land under the farm’s control, and little knowledge of specific places is needed.

There are other facets to this problem. Sometimes, when a farmer wants to pass on the farm to the next generation, the next generation does not want to farm. On the other side of the coin, the high cost of land and equipment makes it difficult for potential young farmers to get started.

Kathleen Merrigan, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, sees this shortage of farmers as a national epidemic. She has traveled to many colleges and universities this spring trying to recruit more people into agriculture, as she says currently there are not enough people coming in to agriculture to replace those who are leaving it.

“If we do not repopulate our working lands, I don’t know where to begin to talk about the woes,” she said in Albuquerque, N.M., in April.


Challenging Times Also Bring a New Opportunity

Even if all these benefits may be lost with the disappearance of mid-sized farms, is there any point in trying to stop the trend? It has, after all, had the same trajectory for more than 80 years.

“(I)t is critical to understand that preserving small (and mid-sized) farms is not a lost cause,” Diane Bell Mayerfeld of UW-Madison argues. “Rather it is a question of determination and national priorities.”

This reprioritization doesn’t have to come from the government (though revisions of farm bill provisions could help). In fact, a new strategy has already started in a strong way with consumer demand. Small farms have found a market for a variety of products such as fruit, vegetables, wine, flowers and wood products among consumers who are interested in the story behind the products they buy. Farmers are now selling about $5 billion in local food annually, according to the USDA.

This demand is now reaching buyers that would need to purchase in greater quantities than the average consumer, such as restaurants, caterers, or food service for hospitals. The Ag of the Middle white paper describes it this way:

(A) new market climate is emerging that will change the way we produce what we eat. The new market climate, especially where food is concerned, consists of three distinct elements. Rick Schnieders, (retired) President and CEO of the SYSCO Corporation (a food-service distributor to restaurants, hospitals and other institutions), describes them as “memory, romance and trust.” These are the attributes that an increasing number of food-conscious consumers are seeking. They want high-quality food, produced with farming practices they want to support and brought to them through a value chain they can trust. All of these attributes can be supplied readily and in sufficient quantity by the farmers and entrepreneurs who occupy the “middle.”

The paper goes on to argue that neither small farms nor large farms are as well-positioned to meet the demand as mid-sized ones: Small farms lack the capacity, and large farms lack the flexibility.

Part of that value chain of trust is having a relationship with the person behind the product. Farmers markets have boomed in recent years in part because they give consumers an opportunity to connect with the person who grew their food. Chipotle Mexican Grill is an example of a company that is doing all it can to tell the story of the food it serves to its customers, even listing on its website the names and locations of some of the farmers that raise their pork, chicken and beef and describing their farming practices.

The demand for these specialty agricultural products is already there. Mid-sized farmers likely can adapt to producing for it, but they may need some assistance to do so—from the extension system or farm organizations, for example. The challenge is connecting farmers to those markets in a way that is straightforward for the farmer and yet keeps intact the integrity of the product that is valued by the consumer. This is what the Agriculture of the Middle Project is now focused on: spreading the word about how to create these connections, which they describe as values-based food supply chains.

Two examples of this kind of values chain are Organic Valley, a cooperative of more than 1,300 farms that sells dairy products, and Shepherd’s Grain, a group of Washington family farmers that sells high quality flours to specialty bakers and restaurants. According to Kirschenmann, who has connected with them through the Ag of the Middle Project, both of them have seen progress in an important statistic: The average age of their farmers is lower than when their organizations started.

This isn’t the only viable path, as several local farmers can attest. The Podolls in Fullerton, N.D., and the Johnsons in Madison, S.D., have found ways to make the connection to specialty markets on their own. Their stories can be found by clicking on their names here.

For traditional commodity agriculture, the trendline is likely to continue toward larger farms. It’s up to the mid-sized producers that are left whether they want to continue to ride that escalator, hoping they aren’t one of the farmers pushed off the side, or if they want to try a journey down a different path.


See the rest of the stories in Dakotafire Summer 2012: The Farm Issue!


A tractor pulling a land roller drives by an abandoned farmstead in rural Frederick, S.D. Photo by Heidi Marttila-Losure /

A tractor pulling a land roller drives by an abandoned farmstead in rural Frederick, S.D. Photo by Heidi Marttila-Losure /

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