Farmland consolidation hurts rural communities, new study shows



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A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists that studied farm consolidation trends between 1978 and 2017 indicates that rural communities are at risk.

The study found that half of the mid-size farms in the Midwest have disappeared in nearly four decades – nationwide, nearly 700,000 – while large farms have grown by about 100 million acres in during the same period. A medium-sized farm is between 50 and 999 acres, while a large farm is 1,000 acres or more.

Study author Rafter Ferguson, who works in the Food and Environment program at UCS, said this trend is rapidly overtaking new generations of farmers by making it harder to profit from smaller. cut. It is also more difficult to compete with these large farms.

“The loss of mid-size farms has huge implications for the agriculture industry and also for communities,” Ferguson said. “Mid-sized farms have historically been the backbone of the rural economy for most of this country’s existence. And it’s not that the big farms themselves are a problem. people for a living. “

Ferguson said these trends also make it more difficult for first-generation farmers of color, especially black farmers, to access the support and resources to start a farm. He said the measures taken by the Biden administration to reserve funding for farmers of color are the “right thing to do” due to a systemic exclusion from the systems that white farmers have enjoyed for decades.

Ferguson called for a level playing field for small farms versus large farms because of the challenges associated with trying to manage them. He said many federal policies in the past have done more to help large farms than small ones.

The Midwest has seen half of its midsize farms disappear since 1978, according to a new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“It is very telling that the only category of farms where they manage to be self-sufficient based on farm income is on the larger farms,” Ferguson said. “Anyone who… tries to farm on a smaller scale, they actually can’t support themselves like that.… You shouldn’t have to farm a thousand acres to do that.”

Conservation programs that set prices on a flat-rate per acre basis should take into account the scale of the farm, Ferguson said, adding that the phasing out of non-recourse loans and price floors in the 1980s and 1990 also contributed to the challenges farmers face today.

While there is no easy fix to this long-term trend, Ferguson said there are three things that improvements would help relieve the pressure on: transitioning family farms, supporting the first generation and equity between farms of all sizes. He said the industry must make sure to keep local producers in the food supply chain to help rural communities stay alive and thrive – the key to equitable access to food for all.

“Any healthy regional food system will need to have some food production there. And as the farms get bigger and bigger, it looks like the trend is down in food production,” Ferguson said. “It sounds like this ironic link between having bigger farms and less food.”

Part of what has led to these systemic problems is the inconsistency of the US Department of Agriculture in recording agricultural data for funding and investment purposes, Ferguson said. He explained that the USDA has a history of underestimating marginalized farmers. While the agency has made efforts in recent years to improve its data recording systems, it said it was nearly impossible to truly understand the extent of farmers’ success over the decades.

Chevron Ferguson

Ferguson said the USDA has claimed more and more farmers, but he believes they are just doing better at counting correctly. He said farmers on the ground with whom he spoke report that the number of farmers overall continues to decline, especially in communities of color. The USDA conducted a census of farmers in 2017 which apparently revealed an increase in the number.

“I think all of these changes the USDA made were real improvements. I’m confident that (the 2017 tally is) the best tally we’ve ever had,” Ferguson said. “But then that creates comparison problems. When they make improvements every five years, it becomes really hard to compare between those years.”

Ferguson called on people to pay more attention to this issue because of the implications it may have for the future of food.

“It’s not good for rural communities, it’s not good socially, environmentally and economically,” Ferguson said. “We need another generation of farmers to connect.

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