Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Kilofarms in the Agricultural Heartland

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Kilofarms in the Agricultural Heartland

Article excerpt

Geographers seem to have lost interest in farming in the United States just at a time when it has started to become more interesting. The size of farms in this country has exploded (Hart 2003). Most of us, if we even bother to think about it at all, have a sort of vague sense that farms probably are growing larger, but few people realize just how large they have become; a 1,000-acre farm is no longer a large farm. Many people probably still think that a 160-acre farm is a fairly typical family farm, and they might be surprised to learn that more than half of the farmland in Illinois is in family farms of 1,000 acres or larger.

We call these 1,000 + acre farms kilofarms; in 2007, Illinois had 7,830 kilofarms and Iowa had 7,450 (1) Initially we were tempted to call them "megafarms," but they are now much too common to be dignified as "mega." Chad Diegnau, a Minnesota family farmer who operates a 1,300-acre cash-grain farm, told us that his goal is to farm 3,000 acres, which would enable him to quit his off-farm job and still maintain an acceptable lifestyle, but finding land to buy or lease is difficult, because he is competing with too many like-minded farmers (Petrangelo 2012).

Some people jump to the conclusion that large farms are operated by corporations, and that "large corporate farms" are bad, whereas "small family farms" are good. In fact, most kilofarms probably are indeed operated by corporations, but they are family-held corporations that hold their board meetings around the kitchen table. Kilofarms have become so large and so valuable that they have been forced to incorporate to avoid being destroyed by inheritance taxes. This paper explores some of the distinctive characteristics of kilofarms in the agricultural heartland of the United States. (2)

AVERAGE-SIZE-OF-FARM

The quinquennial Census of Agriculture probably contributes to the misperception of farm size by publishing statistics on "average size of farm" that egregiously underestimate the true size of real working farms. The census, which makes a truly admirable effort to include all possible information, defines a "farm" quite permissively as any operation that produces $1,000 or more of agricultural products a year. This definition patently includes huge numbers of undersized "non-farm farms" that could not be considered true working farms by the wildest stretch of anyone's imagination, but they grossly inflate the number of farms used as the divisor in calculating average-size-of-farm, and thus reduce it appreciably (Hart 1992).

Despite this quirk, the average-size-of-farm data in the census of agriculture have been comparable over time, and they provide useful information about the way in which farm size has been increasing. The average-size-of-farm in the eight states of the Midwest doubled from 143 acres in 1950 to 291 acres in 1997. Growth was impressively consistent from year to year, with no dramatic breaks, and all midwestern states grew at roughly the same rate, which suggests that a pervasive regional dynamic was driving similar growth in each of them (Figure 1).

A NEW DIVISION IN 1997

A bureaucratic shuffle in 1997 was responsible for adding many new farms to the divisor used in calculating average-size-of-farm, however, and this new divisor raises questions about the comparability of average-size-of-farm data as a realistic measure of the way in which farms are growing. In 1997, Congress transferred responsibility for the quinquennial Census of Agriculture from the Bureau of the Census in the U.S. Department of Commerce to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. NASS was appropriately sensitive to its responsibility for maintaining comparability of data. Eighty-five percent of the Census of Agriculture personnel transferred from the Census Bureau to NASS to conduct the 1997 census. They used the same questionnaires and procedures as in earlier years, they used extreme caution not to change the way anything was done, and they did a splendid job (Hart 2001). …

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