February 9, 2004: The escalating loss of midsize
farms could lead to serious consequences in Iowa and
the rest of the nation, says the director of the Leopold
Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
“The latest reports show that we’re still
rapidly losing midsize farms,” said Fred Kirschenmann.
“This ‘disappearing middle’ is strongly
tied to the health of Iowa’s economy, our environment
and our rural communities.”
more information on the “Disappearing
Middle” read New Farm’s
exclusive interview "Stemming
the flow from family farming"
with Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
director Fred Kirschenmann.
According to data from the 2002 U.S. Census of Agriculture released February
3, Iowa has 90,634 farms, down more than 6,000 since
1997 when the last census was conducted.
The decline was greatest among Iowa farms with annual
sales between $5,000 and $500,000. The number of farms
in this category dropped by 17 percent in five years.
By comparison, farms with more than $500,000 in annual
sales, which make up 5 percent of Iowa farms, grew by
17 percent between 1997 and 2002. Farms with less than
$2,500 in annual sales – 26 percent of Iowa farms
– grew by 39 percent during the same period.
“This is not just about farm numbers or ‘saving
the family farm,’” Kirschenmann added. “This
is about an entire segment of the food and farming industry.
Its loss will dramatically change the landscape of rural
America, jeopardize the future productive capacity of
the land, and by extension, threaten our food security
and the health of urban communities.”
Kirschenmann warned that agribusiness trends –
including the rise of large, consolidated farms that
serve the bulk commodity markets – are increasingly
pushing smaller operators out of the marketplace.
There is a belief that cost efficiency continues to
increase as farms get larger, however, Kirschenmann
pointed out, cost per unit flattens at a certain point.
This occurs sooner than most people realize, he explained,
and farms that expand beyond this point increase income
but not efficiency. And as some farms become larger
to increase income, others have to go out of business.
Kirschenmann is one of the leaders of a new national
initiative, Agriculture of the Middle, designed to renew
America’s disappearing mid-scale farms and related
agricultural and food enterprises. The project is funded
by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the U.S. Department
of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research
and Education program and the Johnson Foundation.
A white paper prepared by the project’s task
force, “Why Worry About Agriculture of the Middle?”
highlights the concern for midsize farms because they
make up the largest share of the nation’s “working
farms,” farms where the chief source of income
and primary occupation is farming. The paper points
to polarizing forces – growth in markets for very
large and very small farms – as an imminent threat.
“These polarizing forces threaten to ‘hollow
out’ rural America in many regions by transferring
many of the agricultural economic activities that have
sustained rural communities, impacting agribusiness
viability, job creation and the maintenance of local
tax bases,” the report states. “And because
these are mostly farms that have been in the family
for several generations (and good land stewardship is
a high priority since the land is seen as part of the
family’s heritage and local ecological knowledge
has been handed down from one generation to the next),
these farms represent considerable social and ecological
capital that greatly benefit the American landscape.”
Members of the multi-state project task force include
researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison,
Cornell University, University of Maine, Michigan State
University, University of Missouri, North Carolina State
University, Washington State University and the University
of California-Davis. Leopold Center associate director
Mike Duffy collaborated with Kirschenmann and other
members of the task force to write the white paper.
The task force hopes to identify public-sector research
and education efforts that will lead to:
- production systems that enable midsize farmers
to increase their efficiencies while restoring the
health of local ecosystems;
- new market structures that enable midsize farmers
to retain more of the value from what they produce;
- policy alternatives to support these new markets
- a national group of researchers and food system
practitioners interested in this approach.
The task force paper is available at the Leopold Center
More information about the Agriculture of the Middle
project is available at: