Agri-Pulse | Decrease in Small, Midsized Farms Highlighted in Ag Census

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When former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in 2019 that the economic realities of dairy farming were forcing farmers to get bigger or get out of the business, he was roundly criticized for appearing to offer no hope for smaller operators.

Perdue tried to walk back his comments by saying his remarks simply reflected reality — “that it is tough to make it in the dairy business milking 40 or 50 cows these days.” But five years later, the 2022 Census of Agriculture confirms the continuing trend toward larger farming operations.

As the number of farms fell 7% during the five-year period, from about 2 million to 1.9 million, only the largest farms became more numerous, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Operations of 5,000 acres or larger went from 26,000 to 27,000.

By comparison, the smallest operations — those one to nine acres in size — fell from 273,000 to 235,000, a 16% drop. Other sizes also were down, but not by as much. Farms 10 to 49 acres in size (the largest category) fell from 583,000 to 567,000, a 2.8% drop, and those 50 acres to 179 acres decreased from about 565,000 to 531,000, or 6.4%.

Another metric also reflected the growth in larger farms; the average farm size grew from 440 in 2017 to 463 in 2022.

The number of dairy operations alone fell 39% in the five years leading up to the latest census, but those with 2,500 or more cows grew from 714 to 834, a 17% jump. Despite only representing 3% of all dairy farms, Rabobank estimates those large farms produced a whopping 46% of U.S. milk.

Beef cattle operations are also following the trend. Those with up to 499 animals fell in number, while those with between 500 and 999 grew 19%, from 4,538 to 5,408 farms. Operations with 1,000-2,499 head grew 19% (1,202 to 1,358), but the largest category of 2,500-plus inched from 198 to 206. Overall, cattle/calf operations fell from about 883,000 to about 732,000, or nearly 21%.

Beef cattle operations also fell by more than 100,000, from about 729,000 to about 622,000, or about 14.6%.

Big chicken operations increased as well over the five-year period. Farms with 500,000 or more birds went from 7,211 in 2017 to 7,406 in the latest census. Hog operations bucked the trend, with operations of 5,000 or more animals falling slightly from 3,600 in 2017 to 3,540 in 2022.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has hammered away at the need for small and mid-sized operations to secure multiple revenue streams to stay in business, continued to sound the alarm over disappearing farms at the annual Agricultural Outlook Forum held by USDA last week.

The problem with the “get big or get out” theory, Vilsack said, is that it takes money to grow, and the farm has to provide that income. 

Operations with more than $500,000 in sales account for about 85% of all income, he said, yet they represent only 7% of all farms in the U.S.

Vilsack spoke the day after facing criticism from some Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee who said he was “demonizing” large operations.

“Some people have suggested that somehow by talking about this, that we don’t care about production agriculture,” Vilsack said.

“We do care about it. We need it. The world needs it. But the question is, can we do better? Can we aim higher? Can we not only have production agriculture that’s the greatest and best in the world and at the same time, create an opportunity for small and mid-sized producers to have a way of being prosperous, of not having to do what 88% of our farm families have to do, which is to have off-farm income to be able to survive.”

Critics of agricultural consolidation saw new cause for alarm in the census numbers. 

The census “substantiates what farmers have known to be true for decades: Increasing concentration within our agricultural markets is squeezing America’s small and mid-sized farms out of business,” said Joe Maxwell of Farm Action.

The American Farm Bureau Federation also expressed concern about the loss of farms and the aging of the American farmer, which ticked up to an average of 58.1, a slight increase from 2017. 

“While it’s encouraging that the number of beginning farmers increased, the latest census numbers show the number of farmers over the age of 65 is outpacing younger farmers,” AFBF said. “Almost 1.3 million farmers are now at or beyond retirement age, while just 300,000 farmers are under the age of 35.” 

The number of young farmers — those under 35 years old — grew slightly, from 285,439 to 296,480, about a 3.9% increase. The number of new and beginning producers rose from about 900,000 to a little over 1 million, an 11.4% increase.

The average age of the new and beginning producers was 47. But nearly 20% were 55-64, and 11.7% were 65-74 years of age.