Big, Small or Bust: The Hollowing Out of Mid-Sized U.S. Farms


    USDA set to release first new agriculture census since 2012

    Growers in middle get crunched as debt-to-income ratio rises


By Mario Parker, Bloomberg   

April 11, 2019


The number of U.S. farms that are either very big or pretty small probably grew during a period when agriculture incomes fell 22 percent, pressuring mid-sized growers whose debt skyrocketed.


The first new U.S. agricultural census since 2012, set to be released today, could offer a sobering peek at America’s farming community in the five years ending in 2017, as well as suggesting where it’s headed. The best bet: A decade-long trend of consolidation isn’t likely to abate.


The new report will only capture part of a downturn that’s persisted into 2019, fueled by a trade war with China that’s limited buyers in a year with bumper crops. That’s boosted grower debt to a record $427 billion, spurring a continuing death watch on the mid-sized farm. The industry’s debt-to-income ratio is now the highest since the mid-1980s.


“We’ve had sort of a hallowing out of the middle,” said Todd Kuethe, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in a telephone interview. “Either you’re one of these large farms or you’re one of these rural, residential farms.”


The number of farms that have 2,000 acres (809 hectares) of land or more increased by 27 percent in 2012 from 1982 levels, the last census showed. Conversely, operations with between 500 and 999 acres dropped by about 30 percent. Meanwhile, the number of little guys -- largely part-time growers, or those farming for leisure or fun -- rose as well. Farms between 10 and 49 acres climbed 31 percent.


Jim MacDonald, an economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, attributes the increase in smaller farms mostly to better data collection by the government and also to people that may have, for example, retired to a rural area, purchased farm land and some cattle or crops.


As for the larger farms, that growth is all about costs, MacDonald said. Farmers have sought to increase scale to better spread their fixed costs and increase their purchasing power with seed and fertilizer companies. At the same time, a proliferation of new technology, including bigger and faster tractors, allow farmers to till ground more quickly and efficiently.


The 2017 census data being released by the USDA will provide a deep dive into grower demographics, from the sizes of farms by acreage and income, to the race and gender of those working in the fields. The last census, released in 2012, came just before net farm income peaked at a record $123 billion...


more, including farm size map