Shrinking Farm Numbers

Number of Farm in US graphOne of the continuing themes of American agriculture in the 20th century is a decline in the number of farms, farmers and rural residents coupled with an increase in the farm size, specialization and capitalization. The two decades between 1950 and 1970 were bellwether years for these trends.

  • Between 1950 and 1970, the number of farm declined by half before leveling off. More farms were consolidated or sold during this period than in any other period in our history.
  • The number of people on farms dropped from over 20 million in 1950 to less than 10 million in 1970.
  • The average size of farms went from around 205 acres in 1950 to almost 400 acres in 1969.
  • At the same time, productivity increased – farmers were producing even more food at a cheaper cost to consumers on roughly the same amount of farmland in the country.

One of the main causes of this consolidation of farms is specialization. Large farms are not simply replicas of smaller ones on a bigger scale. The economic realities that allow a farmer to grow also force him or her to change the operation. Large farms almost have to specialize in a few cash crops. Or, to put it another way, specialization allows farms to grow larger. It is both a push and a pull of economic factors that fosters specialization.

In 1900, almost all farms – 98 percent – had chickens, 82 percent grew corn for grain, 80 percent had at least one milk cow, and a like percentage had pigs. Given those numbers, it’s obvious that most of the farms were diversified, growing all of those items.

By 1992, only 4 percent of farms reported having chickens, 8 percent had milk cows, 10 percent had pigs and only 25 percent were growing corn. Most of the farmers who were producing these commodities produced only one or two crops or livestock items. Of the 17 major farm commodities, the average farm in 1900 produced five of them; in 1992, the average farm produced less than two.

So, what was happening in the 50s and 60s to promote consolidation? For one thing, the machinery manufacturers that made consolidation possible were finally reaching their potential after being hampered by the Depression and the material shortages of World War II. For another, four wars in the 20th century each strained the supply of farm labor which in turn pushing farmers to mechanize. But most importantly, economies of scale have been a driving force behind the movement toward larger farms and specialization. When a farmer invests thousands of dollars in a new machine that is specifically designed to plant, cultivate or harvest a particular crop, the natural tendency is to raise as much of that crop as possible to realize a return on the investment.

film_reeves_LIn addition, the explosion in agricultural research pushed farmers to specialize. Innovations in agricultural knowledge and technology are wonderful things, but it takes a lot of time and dedication to keep up with the newest research. Farmers naturally began to concentrate only on the research that pertained to their own specialized operations.

Don Reeves (right) says that another sociological development has contributed to the decrease in the number of farmers and increase in the size of farms – off farm income. “During the war, it was emergency need,” he says. “But it was through the 50s and 60s, it became a standard practice.” Don says there’s nothing inherently wrong with increasing size of farms, but “intentionally and unintentionally we have subsidized the move towards scale… To have promoted this was to the detriment of rural communities.”

film_gocke_RIronically, as research and specialization pushed farmers to be more like scientists, it may be the intangible feelings of connection with the land that keeps many farmers on it and in business.

Beulah Gocke (left) has survived drought, bad weather, financial downturns and family pressures, but still could not give up farming. “The land is like your family,” she says. “It’s just a part of your faith. The weather, the storms, the clouds, it always keeps reminding you that you’re not along out there. It’s your faith.”

kooserThe decrease in the number of farms leaves a lot of farm houses that are often just left behind. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser often visits an “Abandoned Farmhouse” and finds clues to lives left behind in the details that he finds.

The increase in the size of farms also came at a time when the total land mass within the U.S. dedicated to farming decreased only a little.

Land in farms peaked in 1950 at 1.2 billion acres. Today, land in farms has dropped to around 0.95 billion acres. Most of the lost farmland was converted to suburban and urban sprawl. However, the most important subset of farmland – land that is devoted to actually raising crops – has remained relatively constant. In other words, as some farmland is taken out of production, farmers convert other land from pasture or marginal lands into cropland. They can make the land productive by installing irrigation systems, conservation practices or fertilizers and pesticides. So, despite the loss of some land, farmers have continued to increase their production.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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