Does (farm) size matter?
Updated: Nov 10
All the doom and gloom reporting on farming is disheartening. An increasing population, hunger, food waste, crop failures, farmers getting out of farming. Feeding 9(+) billion people in the coming years seems like a daunting task but from the farmers I know and meet through Farmbrite, I believe we're up to the task. Instead of getting discouraged by these numbers we should work to be better producers, growers, ranchers and farmers. We have 30 harvests before 2050 and we need to get smarter about our farming practices. My grandfather repeated the old adage to me many times, "work smarter." He was a successful, hardworking businessman and farmer. If we value this kind of thinking we can succeed in any business, farming not excluded.
In an effort to feed this growing world population, small farms get overlooked because they are not producing as much and don't make as much. I think they are an undervalued player in our food resources. These farms feed themselves, their employees, as well as producing for others. The unreported amount of food doesn't get calculated in the amount produced and their hard work is often discounted. On the other hand, large farms are the powerhouses of farming. They are organized, mechanized, and have coherent processes helping them run a streamlined agricultural business. But those streamlined processes sometimes come at a high cost to natural resources. Let's not let this get personal. Why does it have to be one or the other is better? To bring about change we have to take the emotion out of it and work together. Here are some interesting statistics about both large and small scale farming.
Global farm statistics
One acre of land can grow a variety of crops, including 50,000 pounds of strawberries or 2,784 pounds (46.4 bushels) of wheat-depending on the climate. (We can grow a lot of food on a small amount of land.)
The amount of feed (grain, forage, etc.) a dairy cow needs to eat to produce 100 pounds of milk has decreased by more than 40% on average in the last 40 years. (We're getting more efficient.)
A staggering 40% of all food grown in the U.S. is never eaten. (We could be much more efficient and reduce waste.)
The USDA counted 2.1 million farms in the 2012 census, more than half of which reported farm commodity sales of less than $10,000. (Small farms are out there working hard and could use some help.)
In 2017 according to the USDA, there were over 321,000 young farmers (under the age of 35) in the U.S. up from 2012, when there were 208,000. (More people are interested in getting into agriculture.)
The average farm in China and India is about 3 acres. (Small farms can be efficient and feed many people.)
Large farms in the EU produce 71% of their agricultural output, but account for just 6.3% of total farms. (UK large farms are producing very well.)
Large industrial farms in the U.S. with over $1 million in sales account for 4% of all farms but 66% of sales. (US large farms are producing very well.)
Since 1994 the number of farmer markets in the US has grown to 8,720 and increase of 7+% from 2013. (People like supporting their local farmer-large or small.)
Check out this post to learn about other global agriculture land use statistics.
It's been said that small farms are less efficient, have a hard time finding land, are failing like many small businesses do in the first 5 years and aren't really "farms" at all because they don't support themselves from farming. Large farms make a bigger splash in the capitalistic pond and so get more press. They also are able to buy better/newer machinery/resources, are sometimes subsidized and often have been farming longer which often means they have efficient processes and possibly inherited the land and don't have to find/buy/or lease land. But don't count out the small farm. Small farmers are on the rise, willing to share their information with others and are often times working for that dream while holding a second job-off farm.
Down doesn't mean out.
All this means is small farms need more efficiency in their farming practices. Using more mechanized planting (using DIY options), vertical farming, cover crops, no-till farming practices, better storage, pest and weed control, more efficient tools for planting, weeding and harvesting, and all and all better processes. YouTube is filled with videos helping small producers grow smarter and be more efficient with growing practices. If we spread ideas across Another win for the small farmer is that they tend to grow diversified crops instead of one mono-crop on their land and use crop rotation which builds the soil and keeps carbon in the soil keeping the planet cooler.
Both- and thinking.
Large family farms have more resources, possibly subsidies, better machinery, and own the land which helps them keep their heads above water -even when it's flooding. But it means they often use practices that are harsh on the environment or wasteful; large quantities of pesticides, large scale tilling and leaving food waste at harvest. They also may not be growing food for food-they are growing food for biofuel, animal feed and processed food. It also means they are good at growing a lot of food. Which we're going to need if we're going to feed all these people. We just need to be smarter about how we go about it. But large farms need our help just as much as the small farm. Their costs are high and their risk is greater. They need to support themselves and their families just like we do. So, there seems to be a market for both types of farm. The use of crop diversity and smart growing practices is better for our health and the environment but we need the larger producers to continue to grow some types of crops in large quantities. How about a truce? We can work to find ways to support the small farm grow and be successful and help the large farm have better growing practices. One tool is our support. Even as farmers we sometimes need to buy food we're not growing. As consumers, when you shop, buy food from local small farms and support the large farms that are working toward sustainable practices in the grocery stores. Do your research and know who you're buying from. Another way is as farmers we can spread the word about our own practices and what works and what doesn't. We can also be better farmers by using tools and growing practices that are shown to be more efficient. Lastly, we can think outside of the box and try new things; start a local growing co-op. You're produce and your neighbors produce can be sold together. Let's get innovative; I'm not talking about expensive gadgets but things like vertical farming, aquaponics, aeroponics and more innovative ways of growing food. The solution is in the how we work smarter together.