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