An honest look at farm size

The merits of small farms vs. big farms — and sometimes big farmers vs. small ones — often is debated with, well, let’s call it passion.

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Jonathan Knutson

The issue of farm size doesn’t draw much attention outside agricultural circles. It sure can generate heat among farmers, though. The merits of small farms vs. big farms — and sometimes big farmers vs. small ones — often is debated with, well, let’s call it passion.

I don't take shots at either side. Part of the reason is that I’m not smart enough to fully define what constitutes a big or small farm. An Upper Midwest wheat/corn/soybean farm with, say, 800 acres — that’s a small one. An area wheat/corn/soybean operation with, say, 10,000 acres — that’s a big one. And a farm that raises those three crops on, say, 2,500 acres is a mid-sized one. But determining the acreage cut-offs is too tough for me.

In any case, farms continue to get bigger. Average U.S. farm size rose 1.6% from 2012 to 2017, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.

Ag economists say that at least partly reflects greater economies of scale on big farms. Their operators can spread costs over more acres, potentially increasing per-acre profits. An example: The cost of acquiring and implementing some type of fairly expensive precision agriculture technology — which can increase efficiency — might not be justified on an 800-acre farm, but could be warranted on a 10,000-acre farm.

To be clear: I’m not saying big farmers are better or smarter; smaller operators can be just as dedicated and savvy. I’m saying there are inherent advantages to being big or at least getting bigger.


True, a few Upper Midwest ag operations grew too big and too fast during the 2008-2012 ag boom. Their operators gambled that good times would continue indefinitely; they lost. But that doesn’t alter the fundamental pressure to improve economies of scale and efficiency.

Generalizing is always risky, but it’s fair to say that smaller farmers often resent the growth of nearby farms that already were relatively large. That’s understandable. Big-farm acreage growth comes by buying or renting land that once was farmed by neighboring producers. Losing that land is financially and emotionally difficult for smaller operators.

I’m sympathetic to smaller farmers who lose land. But the reality is, landowners have the right to right to rent or sell their land to whomever they want. Bigger farmers have the right to expand, or at least try to.

Economic vitality

Rural economic vitality factors into the big-farm vs. small-farm debate, too. Advocates of smaller farms maintain that, say, 10 farms of roughly 1,000 acres each provide more families to shop at local stores and worship at local churches and more children to be educated at local schools than a single 10,000-acre farm.

True, but it’s not that simple. Big farms typically have at least a few full-time, permanent employees who earn enough to support themselves and their families. Those employees, some of them anyway, shop at local stores, worship at local churches and send their children to local schools.

And I know farmers with big operations who care deeply about their local community and work hard to support it.

I grew up in an era and place where farms of 600 to 1,200 acres were common. Today, farms in that area are bigger and fewer; farm towns there have fewer people and businesses; schools have closed, school districts have merged. That’s disconcerting, even troubling, to me.

But I realize it’s hardly a new trend. Farms have been getting bigger since homesteading days. Decide for yourself whether that’s good or bad. (I think it’s both.)


What ultimately matters, at least to me, is whether a farm operates productively, sustainably and profitably, whether its operator pays the bills and supports his/her family and community. Any honest assessment would conclude that big farms, small farms and farms in between can fit that description.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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