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USDA 2022 ag census reveals policy is failing small farmers

Farm Action on Tuesday published a press release in response to the USDA’s 2022 Census of Agriculture, citing it for its fostering industrial agriculture at the expense of small farmers. Farm Action is a nonprofit organization that advocates for policy that restricts the ability for large corporations to operate in the food and agriculture sectors.

Farm Action Chief Strategy Officer Joe Maxwell, former lieutenant governor of Missouri and also a farmer, who authored the Farm Action release, said in it that the agriculture census substantiates what farmers have known to be true for decades: Increasing concentration within our agricultural markets is squeezing America’s small and mid-sized farms out of business.

“While our farmers struggle with fewer suppliers to buy from and purchasers to sell to, the largest food and agriculture corporations are gaining greater power and raking in record profits off the backs of farmers and driving them off the land,” Maxwell stated in the release.

He included data from the census to substantiate his argument.

The latest census outlines the consolidation of America’s farmland, the release says. Small and mid-sized farms declined rapidly while the number of large farms increased. Between 2017 to 2022, the U.S. lost a total of 141,733 farms, or roughly 7%. According to the 2022 Census of Agriculture:

• While inventories remained relatively stable, since 2017, we lost 34% of dairy farms, 8.5% of hog farms, 7% of beef cattle farms, and 12% of our feedlots.

• Since 2002, we have lost 61% of our dairy farms, 23% of hog farms, 13% of beef cattle farms, and 72% of our feedlots.

• The largest farms (with sales of $5 million or more) accounted for fewer than 1% of all farms but 42% of all sales.

Open Markets in 2022 published a report, A Midterm Review of the Biden Administration’s Commitment to Food System Competition. The report stated, in part:

For decades, consolidated agribusiness has squeezed and even bankrupted farmers, exploited workers, fouled the environment, hollowed out rural America, and cheated consumers. None of this is the inevitable outcome of natural market forces or efficiencies, but rather the end result of deliberate policy choices. Over the past 50 years both Democratic and Republican administrations chose to weaken antitrust laws, which has allowed corporations to merge into monopolies and deploy previously illegal business practices, such as predatory pricing, exclusive dealing, vertical restraints and economic discrimination.

The Open Markets report is accurate, if compared to a 2022 Iowa PBS report titled The Farm Crisis of the 1980s.

“During the 1980s, American farmers confronted an economic crisis more severe than any since the Great Depression,” the PBS report states. “Agricultural communities throughout the Midwest and across the nation were devastated. Families were forced from the land, lenders collapsed, and businesses on rural main streets closed–many to never reopen. It was a decade of turmoil and of activism.” Activism included Willie Nelson organizing Farm Aid in 1985.

The PBS report pointed out the national “tractorcades” to Washington, D.C. in 1979 and 1980 are among the best remembered expressions of discontent in the Heartland. Led by the American Agriculture Movement, or AAM, the protests were some of the earliest signs of distress in farm country.

Similar protests began in Paris, France earlier this month, for similar reasons, and have now spread across Europe.

In the U.S., following decades of food price manipulations by the federal government, President Richard Nixon appointed Earl Butz as secretary of agriculture.

As secretary, Butz prioritized increasing production and decreasing commodity prices over all else — including farmers’ livelihoods, the prosperity of rural communities, the health of consumers and environmental sustainability, states an October, 2019 opinion piece published in the Hill . He eliminated supply management policies that had previously stabilized food prices, encouraged farmers to “plant fence row to fence row” and relied on export markets to get rid of the inevitable surplus.

Around that same time, the U.S. judicial system shifted its interpretation of antitrust laws, easing up significantly on the enforcement of mergers and acquisitions in all industries, the Hill states. This has allowed for several waves of consolidation in the food and agriculture sectors, which has all but eliminated small and independent companies. Before then, antitrust laws had been strictly enforced for many decades, which helped preserve widely-shared economic prosperity.

The opinion piece is substantiated by a March, 2018 USDA report titled Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture. The USDA study found that farm production had been shifting to larger farms for many years–one element of broad-based changes in farm structure.

By 2015, 51 percent of the value of U.S. farm production came from farms with at least $1 million in sales, compared to 31 percent in 1991 (adjusted for price changes).

Consistent with the shift in the value of production, cropland acreage has also concentrated into fewer, but larger, farms. By 2012, 36 percent of all cropland was on farms with at least 2,000 acres of cropland, up from 15 percent in 1987, the report stated. The midpoint for cropland acreage, at which half of all cropland is on larger farms and half is on smaller farms, nearly doubled from 650 acres in 1987 to 1,201 acres in 2012.

The 2022 Census of Agriculture, as Farm Action and Open Markets point out, reveals that those numbers have not improved in favor of small agricultural producers in more than two decades.

Michigan statistics are on par with the rest of the nation.

The number of farms in Michigan in 2022 was 44,300, down 1,700 from 2021, according to Marlo D. Johnson, Director of the USDA NASS, Great Lakes Regional Office. Land in farms was 9.2 million acres, down 500,000 acres from last year. The average size farm in Michigan was 208 acres per farm, down from 211 acres in 2021. According to the state legislature, a farm must consist of 40 or more acres in one ownership, with 51% or more of the land devoted to agricultural use. In Houghton County, 20 farms are from one-nine acres, or 10% of total farms, while 56 are 10-49 acres, or 27%.

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