Have you been to a farmers’ market recently? I hit a downtown Chicago market before lunch today, picking up some last-minute sage and yellow beets for tonight’s dinner. The city’s Federal Plaza was packed with kiosks, all doing a brisk business.
These farmers’ markets are proliferating, and a casual visitor would conclude that they are the future of American farming. Much of what we read about modern farming comes to exactly that conclusion. So a reality check is in order.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is out with its latest survey of the number of American farms and the amount of land in farms. It looks at statistics in 2012 and compares them with 2011, a narrow time frame. But the bottom lines confirm trends that have been going on in American farming for more than a century.
- Basically, the total number of farms continues to decline. There are ever fewer farms and ever fewer farmers. Overall, there are 2.2 million farms in this country, down 11,630 farms from 2011.
- But the number of big farms, or mega-farmers if you prefer, is growing. The number of farms earning more than $1 million per year is growing the fastest.
- The number of very small farms, making less than $10,000 per year, is falling.
- But for a change, the number of mid-size farms, those earning $100,000 to $500,000 per year, is growing. These are the so-called family farms, which had seemed doomed to extinction.
What’s going on? The USDA doesn’t go into much detail. But anecdotal evidence provides some clues.
First, mega-farming is both the present and future of American farming. This upsets locavores and other advocates of small-scale farming, but it’s true. Farms earning $500,000 or more increased by 8.6 percent. Actually, all this growth took place in farms earning $1 million or more: their number grew by no less than 20 percent.
Farms earning $500,000 or more account for only 6.2 percent of all U.S. farms but own 34 percent of all farm land. Farms earning $10,000 or less are actually the majority of farms – 55 percent – but control only 10.8 percent of all land.
Much of the decline in the total number of farms took place at the very bottom of the scale. There were 2.5 percent fewer of these small farms by year’s end.
If you assume that most farmers’ market vendors are small farmers, you’d conclude that they’re going out of business. I’d bet this is wrong.
Most market farmers and other specialty vendors indeed started small. But this niche, like mega-farming, is one of the growth areas of American agriculture. The decline in the number of small farms and the increase in the number of mid-size farms may indicate that these formerly small farmers are doing very well indeed – so well that they’re now out of the small-farm category and into the mid-size category.
The USDA reported that “smaller farms (are) moving up to higher sales classes.” The market vendors I know agree. Many of them are doing very well, expanding their acreage, adding crops and increasing their income.
(This is not the same as saying they are earning more from farmers’ market. Just the opposite. As any market-goer knows, prices in farmers’ markets generally run higher than those in your neighborhood grocery: patrons pay more for freshness, quality and the fun that markets offer. In these recessionary times, fewer shoppers can afford this pleasure. Most vendors tell me their market sales are down, but they more than make up for it with sales to restaurants, gourmet shops and other high-end customers.)
These statistics are national, but the USDA breaks them down by states. By and large, all Midwestern states follow these national trends.
The number of big farms is growing for the same reason that it’s been growing for a century. More modern technology enables individual farmers to farm ever more acreage: the introduction of GPS and other technology to farm equipment keeps this trend going. There’s no reason to think it will end.
In addition, agribusiness is geared to the big farmer. American agriculture is dominated by the big agribusiness firms, such as Cargill and ADM, which strike contracts with farmers and which prize the kind of quality and quantity controls that only big farms can provide.
Again, food activists decry this trend. But they’re wrong. American agriculture feeds much of the world, including the billions of newly hungry mouths in emerging countries such as China. Small farms can serve farmers’ markets but they can’t satisfy this global demand. The alternative to mega-farming is famine.
The sharp decline in the smallest farms may reveal another, more disturbing, trend. Any farm earning $10,000 or less is too small to support a family. Mostly, they are owned by people who work in towns, often at manufacturing jobs, and live in the country, using their day jobs to support their rural life. In other words, these farmers must have other jobs to keep the farm.
As we know, many of these town jobs, especially in manufacturing, have been vanishing. As they do, so goes the income to support these little farms, which are either being sold off or simply abandoned.