26 July 2011

A century of changes in U.S. farms

The maternal line of my family were corn/dairy farmers at the turn of the last century (the paternal side were working the Pennsylvania railroad).   The graphic above, from the Center for Research on Globalization, shows the changes that have occurred on farms during these last several generations.

Not defined at the link, but I think implicit from the curves (depending on how "average" is calculated) is that the total acreage farmed in this country has not changed substantially in a century.  And total output must be markedly higher, reflecting a wide variety of changes in crops, equipment, techniques, and in efficiency from the scale of operation.

The other interesting data (USDA, 2010), discussed at Sociological Images, relate to farm subsidy programs.
Small-scale family farms (defined as operator-owned farms with less than $250,000 in sales — which does not mean $250,000 in profit, of course) make up 88.3% of all farms in the U.S., while large-scale family farms (operator-owned farms with sales over $250,000) are 9.3%.

While small-scale family farmers receive the majority of land-retirement payments — that is, subsidies in return for taking land out of agricultural production — large-scale family farms are the major beneficiaries of commodity payments such as price supports that subsidize the cost of production...
Whether farm subsidies are essential to preserving small family farms or actually hurt them by artificially supporting capital-intensive large-scale production is a topic of much debate within agricultural circles.


  1. Interesting that the height of the change took place from the 50s to 70s. Since the 90s not much has changed yet we still hear about the family farm crisis.

  2. This reminds me of a joke:

    A farmer wins a million dollars in the lottery. When asked by a reporter what he intends to do with the money? He said, "He would pay some debts." The reporter asked, "What about the rest?" The farmer replied, "They'll just have to wait."

  3. Round here (SE Texas) anything smaller than 6,000 acres is known as a hobby farm. It takes that much acreage at least to keep a modern set of farm equipment busy. That's a conservative estimate.

    That's 10 600 acre fields - 2x4 rotations (beans, milo, clover, cotton or beans, rice, beans, cotton) plus a couple spare to be shifted as the economy and weather dictate.

    There are smaller farms that aren't hobby - but they're a tough business. Orchards, truck farms (veggies and/or fruit), nurseries, chicken coops. Labor and capital intensive and very competitive (we're competing with Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala).

    The best use for smaller tracts is to lease them out for cattle grazing. You get an Ag exemption on your property tax and cover half of your mortgage. And have a country home you can retire to on the weekends to have a big garden and a pond the kids can catch bluegills out of. A sweet deal, one I aspire to, but a hobby farm.

    I had the education of working a couple summers on a farm, and have seen my in-laws run a non hobby farm to this day. We need to de-romanticize our agricultural heritage - working on a farm REALLY sucks. It ain't little house on the prairie.


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