Capital Press | Large farms dominate U.S. cropland

Published: September 10. 2013 4:50PM

Carol Dumas/Capital Press
Sugar beets are nearing harvest on this farm outside Jerome, Idaho, on Sept. 10. A new USDA report finds while more U.S. cropland is shifting to larger farms, the ag landscape is still dominated by family farms. Increasing financial risks and new technology, however, could undermine the family farm model in the future.
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U.S.cropland has been consolidating for the past three decades with cropland shifting to larger farms. Cganges in technology and farm organization have driven the increase to larger farms, as farm operates are able to manage more acres and are less constrained by financial risk. Despite the trend, U.S. cropland is still dominated by family farms.

While the median farm size in the U.S. has changed little over the last three decades – due to the growing number of very small and very large farms – the number of mid-sized farms has declined and cropland acreage has moved toward much larger farms

In the early 1980s, most cropland was operated by farms with less than 600 acres. Today most cropland is on farms with at least 1,100 acres, with many five and 10 times that size.

In 2011, 1,140 U.S. farms had at least 10,000 acres of cropland, up from 409 in 2001, according to a report from USDA’s Economic Research Service released this week.

The report, Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Cropland, delves into the changing ag landscape and the factors behind the trend to larger farms.

In 2011, 1.68 million farms had cropland, and the average size was 234 acres using a simple mean calculation of cropland divided by numbers of farms. That calculation, however, masks structural changes in the farm sector and the substantial and widespread acreage shift to much larger farms, authors of the report stated.

Instead of a mean calculation, the authors introduced a measure of midpoint acreage in which half of all cropland acres are on farms with more cropland than the midpoint and half are on farms with less.

They found the midpoint acreage for U.S. cropland nearly doubled between 1982 and 2007, from 589 acres to 1,105 acres, increasing in 45 states and more than doubling in 16 states. The largest increases occurred in a contiguous group of 12 Corn Belt and Northern Plains states.

In that same period, midpoint acreages more than doubled in corn, cotton, rice, soybeans, and wheat and increased an average of 107 percent in 35 of 39 fruit and vegetable crops.

“The evidence is consistent. Cropland shifted to larger farms in most states and for most crops. The increases were persistent over time, and they were substantial,” the authors stated.

Changes in technology and in farm organization that enable farm households to operate more cropland today than they could in the recent or distant past are two of the many factors contributing to cropland consolidation, the authors stated.

Technology is allowing individual farmers to operate and manage more acres. Labor-saving innovations – from bigger and faster equipment and information technology to herbicides, seed genetics and changing tillage techniques – have substantially reduced labor in agriculture and facilitated a shift to larger crop farms.

Greater specialization – beginning with a separation of livestock farming from crop farming in the latter part of the 20th century – has allowed full-time crop farmers to devote more time to crop production and manage more cropland.

At the same time, the number of production and marketing contracts to govern the sale of products has increased, which can reduce price and marketing risks. Farmers have also limited their risk by leasing equipment and hiring custom services and are less constrained by the inherent risks of major equipment purchases.

Despite the shift to larger farms and more consolidation of cropland, family farms continue to dominate U.S. crop production, accounting for 96 percent of farms and 87 percent of production value, the authors stated.

While data from the 2012 census of agriculture will provide more information on trends, data on midpoint farm size from a 2011 USDA survey shows no increase over the 2007 estimate drawn from the census, suggesting a slowdown rather than an acceleration in consolidation, the authors stated.

Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Crop Farming, by