Fewer but Bigger Farms

Nearly ever time I tell someone my family has a farm, I have to answer a set of questions: What kind? Do you milk the cows by hand? How big is it? How many cows are there?

We have a dairy farm of Jerseys.

We don’t milk our cows by hand, and I never milk them.

If by size you mean acreage, the farm is around 110 acres plus an additional 113 acres of hay fields owned and farmed by my uncle. If you’re actually curious about the number of employees, it’s my dad. I mentioned my uncle, and besides his fields, he helps out with the feeding and maintenance of the farm. Other chores are completed by my brothers—sometimes.

And finally, though it varies a little because livestock are live, our milking-age herd is around 120 cows. Then we have 100 or so younger—or male—cattle.

Now that I answered the general questions about the size of our farm, let me explain why the size of farms matters in the national agricultural conversation.

While the number of farms are decreasing, the sizes of farms are increasing.

“The number of farms in the United States for 2016 is estimated at 2.06 million, down 8 thousand farms from 2015,” according to the USDA. “Total land in farms, at 911 million acres, decreased 1 million acres from 2015. The average farm size for 2016 is 442 acres, up 1 acre from the previous year.”

The majority of farms in the United States are still small, but more and more, big corporate farms buy up other farmlands.

“While a number of farms continue to grow on one end of the spectrum, the rest are shrinking on the other, leaving fewer and fewer mid-sized farms,” according to an article in the Washington Post.

Large farms account for 42.4 percent of agricultural production, and while they are still only a small fraction of all farms, they’re increasingly common given their productivity and profit.

In the dairy industry more specifically, the USDA reports that the number of dairy farms with all under 500 head decreased between 2000 and 2006 (with a pattern that suggests the trend continues). Meanwhile farms with over 1,000 head increased in number.

One of the largest dairy farms in the U.S. is Fair Oaks Farm, an operation owned by nine families. People can go on guided tours of this farm with its 10 milking parlors, 400 employees, and 30,000 cattle. The difference between it and our farm does not need elaboration beyond that.

I fully admit this is conjecture, but I don’t expect that all agriculture in the coming future will be so industrialized as the Fair Oaks Farm and other mega-farms. However, the trend towards more large farms and fewer small farms is a drastic change from the past, and it’s and something to watch.

“Early 20th century agriculture was labor intensive, and it took place on many small, diversified farms in rural areas where more than half the U.S. population lived,” according to the USDA. “Agricultural production in the 21st century, on the other hand, is concentrated on a small number of large, specialized farms in rural areas where less than a fourth of the U.S. population lives,”

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