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Small farms are producing less and becoming more financially risky

 Small, family-owned farms like this one in east central Illinois still make up biggest percentage farms in the US, but they make up less of the total land and production than they did just ten years ago.
File photo/Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
Small, family-owned farms like this one in east central Illinois still make up biggest percentage farms in the US, but they make up less of the total land and production than they did just ten years ago.

A new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows the percentage of farms that are small and family owned is staying steady, but they produce less and are more financially risky.

The USDA Economic Research Service last week released its latest America's Diverse Family Farms report, which provides current statistics on U.S. farms, including production, financial performance, size and ownership.

Among the findings in the report is that the percentage of farms that are small and family owned remained unchanged from 2011 to 2020, holding steady at 89% of all farms.

The USDA defines a small farm as one with gross annual income less than $350,000 and as family owned when the majority of the business is owned by a single family and is operated by a family member.

“In 2020, most U.S. farms are small family farms. And they operate almost half of U.S. farmland and account for 20% of farm production,” said Christine Whitt, an agricultural economist for the USDA.

But that percentage of total farmland and amount of production small farms make up is down over the past 10 years, meaning big farms are getting bigger and are increasing production at a faster rate.

That trend isn’t new, and it is troubling to environmentalists and sustainable farming advocates.

The Union of Concerned Scientists identified farm consolidation as among the major problems facing modern agriculture and rural communities in its publication Losing Ground released earlier this year.

“Government policies that have consistently favored larger farms — along with the competitive advantage granted by economies of scale — made consolidation into a pervasive trend across the country,” the report said.

The group goes on to say that larger and larger farms lead to more environmentally damaging farming practices, racial inequity in agriculture and economic damage to rural towns.

The USDA report also shows that smaller farms are becoming increasingly fragile economically.

The report quantified farms in terms of the financial risk they took on every year.

“Small family farms have a greater share of farms in the high risk zone,” Whitt said. “However, small family farms typically rely upon off-farm income.”

That means small family-owned farms are becoming more reliant upon non-farm income, such as a spouse having an outside job, to continue farming.

While small family farms saw their financial risk over the past 10 years increase, large and corporate-owned farms saw their risk decrease.

“Consolidation has reduced opportunities for new farmers, who have become increasingly rare — and this has hit Black farmers, already fighting an uphill battle against multiple barriers imposed by structural racism, especially hard,” the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote. “In short, when farms grow bigger and farmers grow fewer, bad things happen.”

The USDA Economic Research Service presents data but does not advocate for any positions, instead makeing information available to policymakers.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Jonathan is the General Manager of Tri States Public radio. His duties include but are not limited to, managing all facets of the station, from programming to finances to operations. Jonathan grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago. He has a B.A in music theory and composition from WIU and a M.A in Public Affairs Reporting from The University of Illinois at Springfield. Jonathan began his journey in radio as a student worker at WIUM. While in school Jonathan needed a summer job on campus. He heard WIUM was hiring, and put his bid in. Jonathan was welcomed on the team and was very excited to be using his music degree. He had also always been interested in news and public radio. He soon learned he was a much better reporter than a musician and his career was born. While at WIUM, Jonathan hosted classical music, completed operations and production work, was a news reporter and anchor, and served as the stage manager for Rural Route 3. Jonathan then went to on to WIUS in Springfield where he was a news anchor and reporter covering the state legislature for Illinois Public Radio. After a brief stint in commercial radio and TV, Jonathan joined WCBU in Peoria, first in operations then as a news reporter and for the last ten years of his time there he served as the News Director. Jonathan’s last job before returning to Tri States Public Radio was as the News Director/ Co-Director of Content for Iowa Public Radio. During Jonathan’s off time he enjoys distance running, playing competitive Scrabble, rooting for Chicago Cubs, listening to all kinds of music and reading as much as he can. He lives in Macomb with his wife Anita and children Tommy and Lily.