A vacant farmstead is one of the saddest sights in agriculture, and one that’s all too familiar to Upper Midwest agriculturalists.
The generations-old trend of farm consolidation — farms becoming bigger and fewer — continues, according to a new government report based on the 2017 Census of Agriculture, which was released in 2019.
One sign of that: So-called mid-size farms, ones with 100 to 900 acres, accounted for 57% of U.S. cropland acres in 1987 but only 33% in 2017. In contrast, farms with more than 1,000 acres acres accounted for only 15% of cropland in 1987 but 41% in 2018, according to the report.
Farms aren’t just getting bigger. They’re becoming more productive and efficient, too. The ever-improving technology that supports larger farms also allows farms to increase per-acre yields with fewer inputs. Agriculturalists should be proud of that.
But as farms get bigger, they also become fewer. What once were, say, three farms of 800 acres each are now two farms of 1,200 acres each or even a single 2,400-acre farm.
And that can be unpleasant, even painful. Fewer farms means fewer farm families, fewer students in local school districts, fewer customers for farm town businesses. If you’re familiar with the rural Upper Midwest, you’ve seen school districts merge and small-town main streets wither.
Farm consolidation isn’t solely responsible for that, of course. Farm families, like other families, are having fewer children, which affects school enrollment. The rise of “big-box” retail stores and Internet shopping work against farm-town businesses.
But there's no denying that ongoing farm consolidation changes the rural Upper Midwest, often in ways that many of us don’t like.
Keep in mind, though, that this has been happening since the region was homesteaded. The settlers who first tended crops and livestock saw fewer and bigger farms in their lifetime, as did their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Remember, too, that many of the men and women who once would have operated farms now work in sales or finance or research or some other occupations crucial to modern agriculture. Ag is a big tent, with room for many people other than farmers and ranchers.
And though farm town merchants and school districts have become fewer and farther apart, those that remain continue to serve customers and students.
Like most of you, we sigh when we see another vacant farmstead. But we also realize the sky isn’t falling. So continue to do what you’ve always done:
Run your farm or ranch or other ag business with all the skill, vision and determination you can muster.
Support your local farm-town merchant and school, whether they’re 3 or 30 miles away.
Remember that agriculture is cyclical. Good times will return eventually.
Upper Midwest agriculture has survived — and at times thrived — for generations. We’re confident that will continue even with ongoing farm consolidation.