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boots Gail Keck
VANISHING MIDDLES: The world won’t be the same without middle kids and middle-sized farmers.

The vanishing middle

The Back 40: What changes are ahead with the decline of midsized farms?

The notion that birth order determines aspects of a person’s personality is controversial, but I’ve come to believe there is some truth in it. For instance, I’m a middle kid, and middle kids are said to be innovative and diplomatic, with superior leadership and peacekeeping skills. That seems accurate, if I do say so myself. But saying we tend to be melodramatic and overly sensitive because we feel overlooked is just ridiculous! And hurtful! How could anyone say such a thing?

Through history, middle kids have dominated in leadership roles. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were all middle children. In fact, 52% of U.S. presidents have been middle children. Of course, for most of our nation’s history, people tended to have large families, so middle children outnumbered first- and last-borns. However, it’s best not to overanalyze when you are using statistics to prove a point.

Fewer middle children, fewer midsized farms

In the future, we’re likely to see the influence of middle children in leadership roles diminish, simply because middle children are becoming rarer as family structures change and people raise smaller families. A similar change is occurring in agriculture’s family of farmers. According to the most recent Census of Ag, numbers of very small and large farms are increasing, while there’s a sharp decline in the number of midsized operations.

The large commercial farms that produce the majority of our farm products act like the big kids of the farming world. They tend to be reliable and high-achieving, but they can also be reluctant to take chances and try new ideas. Meanwhile, tiny hobby and lifestyle farms act like the adorable younger siblings. They tend to have great social skills, and they thrive on attention — which might explain all their charming farm photos on Instagram. They’re also the ones who can break long-standing rules and get away with it.

Like middle kids, middle-sized farms tend to look for ways to distinguish themselves from their bigger siblings in order to find their own paths to success. They’ve often been the innovators, testing out new production and conservation practices. As the number of midsized farms declines, will large farms take it upon themselves to set up research programs to replace those back-field experiments?

Historically middle-sized farms have been the ones providing leadership for community groups and farm organizations, as well. Will the large farms encourage more employees to engage with their communities? How about the small farms? Will they pick up the slack, or are those farmers too busy with the off-farm careers they need to keep their farming fantasies going?

Middle's essential function 

Middle-sized farms also help provide the critical mass that keeps rural communities and ag-related businesses healthy. Those little kids aren’t big enough to do it on their own, and the big kids have enough clout that they don’t have to rely on local connections.

As middle kids and middle-sized farms dwindle, future families and the farming industry will settle into different dynamics, but few people seem concerned about the changes. Maybe those in the middle have good reason to feel overlooked.

Keck writes from Raymond, Ohio.



TAGS: Management
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