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Family Farms are Dying?

Is the family farm dying? My blog post, Get Back to Your Roots, introduced the idea that the general public is less connected to farms than ever before. Today I thought I'd dive deeper into how that happened, what a family farm looks like today and if the family farm still has a future.

In 1940, there were 6.8 million farms in the United States according to USDA statistics, and more than 20 million people lived on those farms. Today there are only 2.1 million farms in this country and fewer than 8 million people live on them. Currently, less than 2.5 percent of the US population are farmers. This does not mean that there is less production now than there was in 1940. In fact, the opposite is true.

Farms are bigger

The attached USDA graph clearly demonstrates that the land being farmed has been relatively stable over a long period of time, while the number of farms needed to farm that land has drastically reduced. Simply put, larger equipment and technological advances has made it practical to farm more acres in less time with fewer people.

Grain farming is the area where this consolidation is most evident. Even on our farm, which grows grain (primarily for feed) on a scale that would be considered small by today's standards, the equipment has gotten bigger and faster.

As a small child, I can remember dad using a John Deere 55 model gas powered combine with a 65 bushel grain tank capacity! Not that we even had them back then, but it would have taken 15 tanks to fill a single semi truck. (a good days work) Our current machine holds around 250 bushels per tank and, in good corn, can fill a semi truck in less than 60 minutes.

Even further back, my dad can remember riding on the back of a pull behind harvester with a 5 foot harvest width. It didn't even have a grain tank. His job was to direct the grain into sacks, tie them and shove them off to be picked up by hand later. The equivalent of one tank hopper with our current equipment would be more than a days work back then. And, it was WORK!

Ironically, the more efficient farms became, the fewer farmers were needed. The traditional farms that support full-time

farmers today are much larger than decades ago. According to the USDA, roughly 11 percent of farms account for around 80 percent of farm revenue.

There are still a LOT of farms out there

All is not lost for the small farmer. Many people are still drawn to agriculture and being involved in the production of food. One of my favorite Kentuckians, Wendell Berry, perhaps sums it up best:

“Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: "Love. They must do it for love." Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants. They love to live in the presence of animals. They love to work outdoors. They love the weather, maybe even when it is making them miserable. They love to live where they work and to work where they live. If the scale of their farming is small enough, they like to work in the company of their children and with the help of their children. They love the measure of independence that farm life can still provide."

These people farming for love often have farms that are relatively small, but integral to food supply in this country. Imagine if 20 percent of the country's food supply (the percentage attributed to 'small' farms by USDA) disappeared overnight. There would be food shortages and a reduction in food options available.

Aside from collectively making up a significant percentage of agriculture production, many of these farms are filling niche roles in the food supply, which increases the significance of their agricultural contributions to the food supply. Their products are often local, premium quality, heirloom or otherwise differentiated from products grown on an industrial scale. Quite simply, if these farms went away food choice would suffer.

So no, the family farm is not dying, it's just changing. The days of a 500 acre (about our size) traditional farm providing all the income needed for a family are gone, likely for good. However, there are still opportunities for small acreage operations today, they just have proactively seek them out. Some have expanded their traditional farming operation by renting enough land to become viable economically. Others have turned to value added products to increase revenue without increasing their land footprint. Still others are content to farm on a hobby scale to provide the lifestyle they are looking for, and that's okay too.

Where does Stith Family Farms fit in?

For generations my family was content to raise traditional crops such as corn, soybeans and cattle to sell on the open market. As I explained previously in the post, We're not raising corn, the farm provided the lifestyle my family valued while providing some agricultural production to the market.

Over the last several years I've put a lot of thought into why I am doing what I do, aside from the sentiments so eloquently expressed by Mr. Berry. Simply put, the farm was too big to be something we did for fun and too small to provide a living for us.

I decided to pivot away from things that are commodities with prices set by market forces and toward things that I determine the value of, independent of the commodity market. Corn sold at the grain terminal is out. Corn used to feed animals and sold as finished feeds to our customers is in. Feeder calves sold at the stock yards is out. Finished beef sold to our customers is in. Each aspect of our farm is being reevaluated and reworked.

It's still a work in progress, but it's working. A big part of why it's working is customers like you that continue to support us by purchasing our meat products and spreading the word to your friends and families. We appreciate your encouragement and support!

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