National strategy for saving small farms awaited Economies of scale driving long-term shift to bigger farms

September 14, 1997|By COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The volunteer National Commission on Small Farms has begun crafting its report on a "proposed national strategy on small farms," and small farmers came from across the nation are looking for solutions to help them avoid extinction.

"Over and over, we've heard that this commission may be the last chance to save small farms," declared Kathleen Sullivan Kelley, a Colorado rancher and vice chairman of the commission.

Appointed in July, the commission has held field hearings around the country and is charged with delivering its findings to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman on Sept. 30. "America's small farms have been disappearing for decades," said Glickman. "When you look at the fact that the average age of today's farmer is 58, this is something that should concern every American."

Farm size increasing

The number of farms in the nation has fallen from 6.8 million in 1935 to about 2 million today. The total amount of land under cultivation has remained at about 1 billion acres, which means the average size of a farm has increased from about 150 acres to nearly 500 acres.

The actual consolidation is even more dramatic, since nearly three-fourths of the nation's farms are classified as "noncommercial" - meaning the farmer must hold an outside job to make ends meet. The 27 percent of the nation's farms classified as self-supporting or "commercial" account for 90 percent of agricultural sales and 70 percent of farmland.

The main force behind the shift to bigger farms is the economies of scale. The equipment and technology available to modern farmers can be used most efficiently and profitably in large-scale operations.

The commission is seeking ways for small farmers can survive in this fiscal environment - by growing speciality or "value-added" crops such as Vidalia onions, for example, or getting higher prices by marketing directly to consumers or through better government programs.

While U.S. farmers are the world's most productive, and Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than the people of any other nation, there has been a historic wariness about having virtually all the nation's crops grown by a handful of giant agribusinesses.

'Under economic duress'

"It's important to have a lot of farmers - not just a few," said Richard Rominger, a deputy agriculture secretary.

There was no disagreement in that opinion from the dozens of witnesses who appeared before the commission in a Department of Agriculture auditorium.

Small dairy farmers are "under economic duress" in East Texas, said Robert Van Winkle, a dairyman from Sulphur Springs, Texas. In his home county of Hopkins, he said, the number of dairies has been cut nearly in half over the past decade. He urged the commission to push for a milk pricing system that is fair to small dairies.

Gordon Gowen, whose family has made maple syrup for five generations from the sturdy trees on his New Hampshire farm, warned that small farmers are being buried in federal regulations.

"All farmers must fill out the same paperwork," he said. "But the benefits of the loan program are spread across a much larger economic base for the producer seeking a loan on 50,000 bushels of grain compared to the producer seeking a loan on 500 bushels."

The small farmer is owner, manager, laborer and bookkeeper, he said, so the Agriculture Department and other agencies should reduce the paperwork burden for these small rural operations.

Michael Sligh, who represents a cooperative program of farmers in Pittsboro, N.C., urged the commission to support continuation of the peanut and tobacco programs - "reasons that North Carolina still has more small farmers than the rest of the country."

Walter Powell spoke for the National Association of Black Farmers - most of whom are located in the South. The plight of African- American farmers is even worse than that of small

farmers in general, he said, describing an "underhand discrimination" in the distribution of crop loans. He proposed a three-year, $190 million federal initiative to "reinvent the small family farm" and stimulate rural communities.

Claryca Mandan, a South Dakota resident who represents the Intertribal Council, asked for help for "America's first farmers."

Pocomoke farmer

Carole Morison of Pocomoke, Md., explained the problems of contract chicken farmers. Carlos Anguilar spoke of his ambition to grow organic vegetables near Salinas, Calif., - if he could get only get bank backing to buy a small farm.

It's not the small farmer who makes money in the food chain, said Tom Trantham, a commission member and dairyman from Pelzer, S.C., who told how South Carolina farmers were getting 14 cents a pound for tomatoes and then seeing them sell for

$1.28 a pound in the supermarket.

Indeed, Glickman suggested, farmers' markets may be a salvation for small growers. Townsfolk love them because they get fresher produce at lower prices, and farmers love them because they sell directly to consumers for higher prices.

Glickman urged the commission and small farmers to be bold and innovative - describing how some Georgia farmers discovered a new market by turning peanut hulls into cat litter. The key question, he said, is what role, if any, should the federal government play given the "very determined trend" toward larger and fewer farms.

Farm trend

..... Number of farms (millions) ..... Average size of farm (acres)

1935 ................ 6.81 ........... 155

1940 ................ 6.35 ........... 167

1945 ................ 5.97 ........... 191

1950 ................ 5.65 ........... 213

1954 ................ 4.80 ........... 251

1960 ................ 3.96 ........... 297

1965 ................ 3.36 ........... 340

1970 ................ 2.95 ........... 374

1975 ................ 2.77 ........... 391

1980 ................ 2.44 ........... 426

1985 ................ 2.30 ........... 441

1990 ................ 2.15 ........... 460

1995 ................ 2.07 ........... 469

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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