President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, made famous the statement, “Get big or get out.” He encouraged American farmers to plant as much as they could. Many took the statement as encouraging consolidation of their farm operations, so they did. Through the mid 20th century, the size of a typical farm got bigger. A different trend toward smaller farms has taken hold in the last 30 years, resulting in a hollowing-out of mid-sized farms. Some have raised alarm over the changes in farm size, with particular concern for the way in which massive farms owned by corporations will negatively impact community well-being.
Our new study finds that the relationship between farm size or structure and community well-being is not so clear-cut. In other words, bigger farms don’t necessarily lead to the decline of rural America, and small “family farms” are not the key to community vitality.
The study uses a few different measures of farm size – employment, sales, and the change in the number of farms between 1997 and 2017 – and seven indicators of community well-being to narrow in on the effect of farm size on communities. In the end, it is hard to draw a clear line between the size of farms and those seven measures of well-being, which include measures of income and poverty, housing, business activity, and health.
For example, our research finds that higher concentrations of larger farms lead to higher earnings per job and better health outcomes, but lower homeownership rates and fewer business start-ups. Further, the change in farm size between 1997 and 2017 has no impact on community well-being, good or bad. Looking at the number of farms where the operator lives elsewhere, we find a negative impact on a community’s economic well-being, but less stress in the rental market and better health outcomes.
Still, our research shows some important trends in agriculture in the United States, even if their effects are not comprehensively understood. Mid-sized farms are giving way to large operations that command significant portions of the market and small “hobby farms” that are rarely viable as the sole-income for the operator.
These mixed results raise some challenging questions for agriculture and community well-being. Large farming operations may not be corporatizing rural America and the recent growth of small farms are unlikely to be a return to the thriving bucolic communities of the past. Our study also highlights important nuances in agriculture and community development. For example, agriculture is an extremely diverse industry. Placing Iowa’s row crops in the same bucket as Sonoma’s vineyards glosses over important considerations when thinking about the intersection of farm size and community well-being.