Latest agricultural census shows a small-farm revolution


They're growing houses in the fields between the towns
And the Starlight drive-in movie's closing down
The road is gone to the way it was before
And the spaces won't be spaces anymore

Thus sang John Gorka in his heartbreaking 1991 ballad, Houses in the Field, about families selling their farms to developers, who “paid better than the corn / But this was not the place where they were born.” By that time, the sad plight of the American small farmer was deeply embedded in the collective psyche: Farms and ranches were being gobbled up at an alarming rate by suburbs and sprawl, ranchettes and McMansions. What the developers didn’t want, the banks or the corporate farms took, consolidating diverse fields into giant, laser-leveled monocultural swaths or industrial feedlots, bursting to the seams with thousands of future Big Macs, wallowing in their own feces.

It was only a matter of time before the very notion of the small, family farm would be bulldozed into parking lots.

Old farm equipment and a new house. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

But before you start sobbing into your oats, take a look at some numbers buried in the quinquennial agricultural census, the US Department of Agriculture’s clearinghouse of farm-related data. Over the last few weeks, the USDA has released a bunch of its numbers from the 2012 census — the most recent available. And while they do show many big shifts in agriculture nationwide, they also indicate that the small farm dream hasn’t died, after all.

That’s not to say that Gorka or any of those writing the epitaphs for American farmers were wrong. Between 1982 and 2012, the eleven Western states in HCN’s coverage area have collectively lost 66.6 million acres of farmland — equivalent to all the land in the state of Colorado. The biggest losses came in places where residential construction was most robust. Forty percent of Nevada’s 10 million acres of former farmland has gone to other use. Arizona saw 31 percent of its cotton farms and citrus orchards go away, presumably replaced by homes, cul de sacs and strip malls.

In some realms, most notably dairy, the conversion of smaller farms into huge agri-factories is also apparent in the data. While the number of dairy farms has decreased significantly in nearly every state, the number of cows has skyrocketed. In 1982, Idaho had 4,200 dairy farms and 180,000 milk machines, er, cows; now a whopping 580,000 milk cows churn out the butter on just 900 farms. Similarly, that state’s potato farmers have dropped in number even as the amount of acreage dedicated to spuds has increased.

But with a closer look, farmophiles can find glimmers of good news in the new numbers. For instance, the Recession apparently went easier on farmers than it did on developers. In almost every Western state, the acreage in farmland either increased or held steady between 2007 and 2012. Arizona farms took back more than 100,000 acres, Colorado gained 282,000. Farmers in Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada and California also took back land.

But most significant is the explosion in the number of farms out there — mostly really small ones — in the Western states. There are now 44,000 more farms in the West than in 1982. The biggest gains were in the Four Corners states, which together added about 38,000 farms over three decades. Surely a few of these are shams — landowners putting a few cows or a “Christmas tree farm” on their land to get agricultural exemptions on their property taxes. But as is evidenced by the ballooning number of farmers markets across the nation, far more are real, income-producing farms. True, they’re not raking in the cash. Many of the new small farmers have other jobs or are retirees (the average age of Western farm operators has gone from about 50 in 1982 to 60 now) and bring in less than $2,500 per year from their crops. Still, it’s a much brighter picture than that portrayed by rock star John Mellencamp in his 1985 anthem, Rain on the Scarecrow.

My grandparents were among the small farmers who ultimately gave it up, though without the drama or violence implicit in Mellencamp’s song. They had a small farm in the Animas Valley above Durango, where they raised sheep, dairy cows, corn, raspberries. They made a pittance by today’s standards, but it was enough to bring up and feed and house seven farmhands, er, kids. When they got too old to keep farming, they sold off most of the land to get them through old age. Though the land hasn’t been developed, and some is still owned by my cousins, it’s no longer a working farm. There was no future in farming for all those kids.

Source: USDA Census of Agriculture.

Or at least they didn’t think there was. Some thirty years after my grandparents stopped farming, my mom and stepdad plowed up a hayfield next to the old farmhouse they bought near Hotchkiss, Colo. Now, well into retirement, they are full-time farmers, and their little piece of land is part of the quiet but real small-farm revolution: The tens of thousands of folks who are putting their hands in the dirt, standing up to industrial agriculture, and reclaiming a bit of land for garlic, tomatoes and sunflowers.

At around the same time that Gorka released Houses in the Field, Nanci Griffith penned her own song about the farmers' plight, Trouble in the Fields. Yet hidden within the maudlin verses is an optimism that seems respond to Gorka, and presage today's small farm rebirth:

And all this trouble in our fields
If this rain can fall, these wounds can heal
They'll never take our native soil
But if we sell that new John Deere
And then we'll work these crops with sweat and tears
You'll be the mule I'll be the plow
Come harvest time we'll work it out
There's still a lotta love, here in these troubled fields.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.

Katy Roberts
Katy Roberts
May 27, 2014 02:48 PM
Is it bad news that less cotton is being grown in Arizona? This is a sincere question.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
May 27, 2014 04:47 PM
@Katy: That's a very good question. I guess it depends on whether you subscribe to that old saying, "I'd rather see a cow than a condo." (Or the Arizona version, I guess, which might go something like: "I'd rather see a cotton boll than a condo... ") I'd love to hear what other readers think.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
May 28, 2014 05:51 AM
Sunday an old guy flagged me down. I was the first one on the road that day. He needed help starting a truck someone had given him. Later he showed me a good place to camp at his grandfather's old homestead now sunk back into the soil except the coral and some rotten logs. The old guy owned all the land up and down one side of a fair sized river for more than a mile. All leased out now.

Later in the rain he stopped by our tent and sat around the wood stove answering questions about where to access the BLM land and when the elk move and where, how the bridge (since washed out) changed things, how much the guests of the resort pay to fish per day (more than $1,000)

Looking at where the homestead had been sited I could see how the two hills either side would protect from the wind and the spring provide year round fresh water, I thought how long it must have been to a town without a bridge when the water was high from the snow melt.

When that old man goes so will his knowledge of the land. His kids went to university and live elsewhere. What will become of his expensive land and his allotment I just don't know, but I for one will miss having him there. Farms to provide for niche markets might be increasing but small ranches I would think are going.

Bruce Vojtecky
Bruce Vojtecky Subscriber
Jun 05, 2014 08:46 AM
    I think of another song, "Where have all the flowers gone?" In the 70's I lived in Concord, California and there was much farmland. Over the years that farmland, like many other areas in the West, was turned into subdivisions. Now, with the recession, high gas prices, and commute times those subdivisions are starting to be vacated as people are moving back into or closer to the cities. Those outlying areas with stretching room are not as pleasant when considering the distance to work, shop, and medical care.
   I believe the subdivisions will return to farmland like the song cycle sings.

Where have all the farms gone
  gone to subdivisions
Where have all the subdivisions gone
  gone to foreclosure
Where have all the foreclosures gone
   gone to farms

Everything goes in cycles
Philip Barton
Philip Barton
Jun 07, 2014 09:42 AM
Not even a chance. But a nice thought.