Demographic Changes

Surprise! More Farms in 2007

A funny thing happened on the way to the farm. From 2002 to 2007, there was a slight increase in the number of farms in the U.S., reversing the steady decline that has been going on for decades, at least temporarily. But the real story is inside the numbers.

  • the number of farms increased by four percent between 2002 and 2007, but…
  • most of the new farmers were small, part-time operations with the new farmers deriving significant income from off-farm jobs.

As the New York Times put it, “American farming is becoming a story of extremes: of really big farms and really small ones.” Forty percent of farms – 900,000 of the total 2.2 million – generated less than $2,500 in sales in 2007. In contrast, five percent of the total farms were large operations generating 75 percent of the total agricultural production.

So, what’s going on? The big operators are still getting bigger. But that trend has slowed a bit, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture.

At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of small farms, particularly around urban areas.

In the map above, it’s instructive to toggle between the buttons “Where Farm Numbers Decreased” – most likely through consolidation and bigger farms – and “Where Farm Numbers Increased.”

It’s also interesting to toggle between “Where Farms Increased” and “Where Farmers Sell Directly.” As you might expect, farmers most often sell their produce, grains and meat products directly to consumers near urban centers. This reflects an increase in the number of farmers’ markets and local “community supported agriculture.”

So, most of these new farms are going to be smaller operations with “farmers” who actually get most of their income from other jobs. They will tend to be younger and are classified by the Census of Agriculture as “Residential/Lifestyle” farmers – that is, they’ve chosen to live on farms because of the lifestyle that rural life affords, but they still keep their day jobs.

film_zieglerehlers_LThayer NE farmers Chris Ziegler (right) and his grandfather Clyde Ehlers see the urban sprawl from Lincoln 45 miles away. Chris says urban people are selling their houses in town and moving to the country. “There’s a lot of investor money that is really starting to find its way into York County,” he says. “Lincoln’s expanding so much. When you sell your ground by the foot, you can come out here and buy your ground by the acre pretty easily.” Clyde says that he couldn’t work in town. “I couldn’t have worked on an assembly line doing the same thing every day and every day and every day. I would have probably went batty.”

No one knows exactly how many of these new farmers have moved from urban areas, but we can reasonably guess the percentage is substantial.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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