The Days of Diversified Farms are Disappearing


Photo by Rachel Tayse Flickr CC.

Between about 1945 and 1970, U.S. farms became increasingly specialized. Chickens and milk cows were the first to go on farms here in America, followed by the loss of multiple row crops, cattle, and pigs. Today, the logical crop and livestock rotational systems of yesterday have been mostly abandoned.

Why?

The farmer who includes livestock in his or her operation has a 24/7 commitment. Monoculture farming, or specialization, offers a better lifestyle, along with the option to earn an off farm income. Crop and livestock technologies have emerged that have become farm methods of choice and government policies have helped to reinforce monoculture crops and the big getting bigger. Today, approximately 22 percent of farms produce only one crop, and 30 percent only two crops. Only eleven percent of crops are produced on farms that produce five or more crops.

Before we pass judgment, we must consider that every region is best suited for a certain kind of agricultural production by soil and weather conditions. Besides, we are all participating in an age of specialization.

Although the nostalgic diversified farm model has many merits, there is no one thing to blame for its demise.

Rural electrification in 1936 as part of the New Deal, along with advancing mechanization allowed farms to get larger, specialize, and expand their range of trade. Growing gardens, raising chickens for eggs and for meat, and milking cows on farms has gone the way of the manual typewriter. Now, our typing methods require electricity, and so do our factory milking operations, poultry meat production operations, and factory egg production operations.

It’s also about economics. Efficiency gains have continued to weed out the inefficient producer, whether that be for the production of beef, eggs, poultry, corn, wheat, or pork. Today’s producer is a global producer and has to compete on the global markets against producers in Brazil, Argentina, and everywhere else.

Usually becoming more efficient means becoming bigger, and that is why cropland farm sizes here in the U.S. have on average doubled over the last 20-25 years. This applies to producers across the board, whether they specialize in growing tomatoes, carrots, or corn.

Even so, the small farm is being revived in recent years, too, largely in response to consumer demand for local organic food. It reflects a values system backlash against the cheap food produced by the efficiency model. How ironic that youth can’t wait to leave the farm and get to the city, yet, the successful CEO who can afford to retire early often wants nothing more than to have his own small farm.

The consumption patterns of the rural producer have changed, too. As the rural areas have depopulated and farm families commute to work jobs off the farm, they buy their food at grocers like Walmart. Amazingly, many rural areas are now classified as food deserts, and the food miles traveled by food on the rural farm dinner table are often as far as on the urban one.

It’s an age old tale, it’s the American dream. Work a white collar job so you can afford to buy what the blue collar laborer produces for you. On the farm these days, increasingly, that blue collar laborer is an expensive machine or technology paid for by both policy and an economy of scale.

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Most U.S. farms raised multiple species of livestock as late as 1960. As a result, most farms also raised corn to feed their animals. Since then, livestock production has become much more specialized, so that less than 5 percent of farms had chickens, hogs, or milk cows by 2010, and those purchase much of their feed. Many farms still raise beef cattle, usually in small cow-calf operations that require land for pasture but only modest labor commitments. Far fewer farms now grow corn, since they do not have herds of livestock, and corn production has concentrated on larger crop operations that grow corn along with 1 or 2 other crops, like soybeans, wheat, or alfalfa. (source: usda)

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For more on how technology has led to structural changes in farming: http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1156726/err152.pdf

3 thoughts on “The Days of Diversified Farms are Disappearing

  1. Dave Newcomer

    Kay,
    I think two other significant factors should be considered.

    The nature of the evolution of technology has in the past, in many different venues, been driven by increasing refinement and application of knowledge. Just as you would not want your doctor to repair your plumbing, a very competent grain farmer does not normally have the bandwidth to also know enough to do a good job of handling sheep. This results from the increasing depth of our knowledge.

    W. Brian Arthur”s book “The Nature of Technology” articulates a good structure for this discussion. Ask a grain farmer who he buys his seed from and why. The answer often reflects an individuals confidence in the knowledge and skill of his sales person. It is not driven by brand names as much as by confidence in the knowledge base of the sales person and the ability to select from the varieties available as that applies to the farmer’s soil.

    I have to take issue with this statement:

    “It’s an age old tale, it’s the American dream. Work a white collar job so you can afford to buy what the blue collar laborer produces for you. On the farm these days, increasingly, that blue collar laborer is an expensive machine or technology paid for by both policy and an economy of scale.”

    The age old tale really is that people want to escape hard physical labor. I have an acquaintance that sells for a group of 80+ organic farms. If you are willing to grow it to a schedule that roughly meets the market needs, she can sell it. One can make about $35,000 per acre farmed this way but she can’t get enough people to do it. In truth it is hard work and we won’t do it. We have a fundamental problem in this country in that we do not respect or honor the people who do hard work. That attitude certainly discourages young people and is more of a cause than big ag.

    Big Ag is a consequence of the reactions of millions of individuals to these forces although we certainly reached the point that those who are invested in that approach will and do act so as to reinforce where human nature has led us.

    Reply
    1. K. McDonald Post author

      Agreed on all points. I think I touched on the first one, in saying we are living in an age of specialization. And yes, I totally am with you on big ag is a result of the forces, including lack of willingness to do hard labor and sweat. That’s why robotics is here and much more is on its way. (That’s why so often it is tempting to use the word hypocrisy when we hear complaints of the system in place.) Thanks.

      Reply
  2. John Blue

    Dave,

    The info ” One can make about $35,000 per acre farmed this way but she can’t get enough people to do it.”, is that gross or net?

    John Blue
    @TruffleMedia

    Reply

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