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Column: America's disappearing act

While sipping on my second (or third) cup of inspiration one morning recently, I read an Associated Press article I’d saved about big farms dominating the 2002 Census of Agriculture.

According to these latest figures, large operations, those with sales of more than a half-million dollars a year, account for 62 percent of the nation’s total agricultural production. And there are more farms in that category than was the case five years ago, when the last ag census numbers were released.

More than 70,000 farms and ranches hit that half-million dollar million plateau in 2002 and production increased from 1997. America’s farmers produced $200.6 billion in products in 2002, an average production per farm of $94,200, up $3,400 from 1997, according to the report.

Small farmers continue to disappear. We lost 26,000 farms of less than 10 acres, leaving only 179,000 of those micro-farms. Mid-sized farms lost ground, too, with 18,000 fewer 500- to 1,000-acre farms. The number of farms with more than 3,500 acres grew by 18,000 over the five-year period.

None of this, of course, comes as any kind of a surprise to anyone who has spent time talking to farmers or to the folks who supply them with seed, fertilizer, equipment and chemicals. It’s a trend that’s been as dependable as wind in West Texas for several decades.

The economy of scale dictates that farms get bigger. If they don’t they struggle; many fail. Larger equipment improves efficiency and farmers need adequate acreage to justify a 24-row planter or a mega-tractor.

I suspect a lot of those small farms have been gobbled up by urban encroachment. I can take a short drive out of Dallas, for instance, and find fields of corn, grain, sorghum and wheat and a number of cattle and horse ranches. But, especially for the past three years, just about every productive field is ringed with “For Sale” signs. And more than a few housing developments now occupy fields that this time of year just a year or so ago were showing slim blades of grain against the black soil.

It’s a fact of life, an unfortunate one, that much good land within 100 miles of a big city becomes more valuable as real estate than it ever was as farmland.

But I digress. What strikes me as significant about the consistent increase in farm size is that farmers are attempting to increase efficiency by spreading the rising costs of equipment, energy and labor over more acres. They often turn to technology — transgenic varieties, reduced tillage systems and precision agriculture — to accomplish more work in a day. They’ve increased per-acre yield as well.

And yet they remain targets. Larger farmers, efficient, productive ones who have taken advantage of available resources — natural, capital and technological — continually have to defend themselves for participating in farm programs that provide a safety, a cushion against market swings and unfair trade.

That battle likely will be renewed when the 109th Congress convenes in January. Within the next year, Senate and House agriculture committees likely will begin talking about the next farm bill. Look for attempts to cut the farm program budget and look for some legislators to single out larger farms to take the brunt of the cuts — just for being good businessmen.

It’s not too soon to begin a dialogue with your legislators.

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