New study shows farmland consolidation hurts rural communities

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists says the fall of small and midsize farms amidst the rise of large ones puts rural communities at risk.

A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists that studied farm consolidation trends between 1978 and 2017 says rural communities are at risk.

The study found that half of the Midwest's midsize farms have disappeared in nearly four decades – nationally, nearly 700,000 – while large farms have increased in scale by about 100 million acres in the same timeframe. A midsize farm is between 50 and 999 acres, while a large farm is 1,000 acres or more.

Study author Rafter Ferguson, who works in the food and environment program at UCS, said this trend is quickly edging out the new generations of farmers by making it harder to be profitable at a smaller size. It's also harder to compete with these larger farms.

"The loss of midsize farms has tremendous implications for the ag industry and also for communities," Ferguson said. "Midsize farms historically are, for most of this country's existence, the backbone of the rural economy. And it's not that larger farms themselves, are a problem. Just overwhelming dominance of large farm means that there's fewer farms, fewer farmers, fewer opportunities for people to make a living."

Ferguson said these trends are also making it harder for first generation farmers of color, especially Black farmers, to access support and resources for starting a farm. He said the steps the Biden administration has taken to reserve funding for farmers of color is the "right thing to do" because of a systemic exclusion from the systems white farmers have benefited from for decades.

Ferguson called for a leveling of the playing field for smaller farms compared to large farms because of the challenges associated with trying to run them. He said many federal policies in the past have done more to help large farms than small ones.

The Midwest has seen half its midsize farms disappear since 1978, a new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists says.

"It's very telling that the only class of farms where they manage to be self-supporting based on farm income is in the very largest farms," Ferguson said. "Everybody who's ... trying to farm at a smaller scale, they actually can't support themselves like that. ... You shouldn't have to farm a thousand acres to do it."

Conservation programs that set prices on a flat per-acre basis should take the scale of the farm into account, Ferguson said, adding that the phasing-out of non-recourse loans and price floors in the 1980s and 90's also contributed to the challenges small farmers face today.

While there's no easy fix for this long-term trend, Ferguson said there are three things to focus on where improvements would help relieve the pressure: family farm transition, first-generation support and equity between farms of all sizes. He said the industry needs to ensure they keep local producers in the food supply chain to help rural communities stay alive and thriving – the key to equitable food access for all.

"Any healthy regional food system is going to have to have some food production happening there. And as farms get bigger and bigger, it seems like the trend is for food production to really fall away," Ferguson said. "It looks like this ironic connection between having larger farms and less food."

Part of what has led to these systemic issues is the US Department of Agriculture's inconsistency in recording farm data for funding and investment purposes, Ferguson said. He explained that USDA has a history of undercounting marginalized farmers. While the agency has made efforts in recent years to improve their data recording systems, he said it's made it nearly impossible to truly understand the scale of success for farmers over the decades.

Rafter Ferguson

Ferguson said USDA has claimed higher and higher numbers of farmers, but he believes they are just doing better at counting correctly. He said the farmers on the ground he's talked to report that farmer numbers overall are still decreasing, especially in communities of color. USDA conducted a farmer census in 2017 that seemingly revealed increased numbers.

"I think all these changes that the USDA made were real improvements. I'm confident that (the 2017 count is) the best count we've ever had," Ferguson said. "But then it creates problems for comparing. When they're making improvements every five-year cycle, it becomes really hard to compare across those years."

Ferguson called for people to bring more attention to this issue because of the implications it may have for the future of food.

"It's not good for rural communities, it's not great socially, environmentally, economically," Ferguson said. "We need another generation of farmers to come online."