Trend Toward Fewer, Larger Farms Locks Out New Farmers in Midwest, Scientists Say

Barriers to Entry into Agriculture Increase Nationwide for New, Young and Black Farmers

Published Apr 14, 2021

WASHINGTON (April14, 2021)—Over the past four decades, the United States has lost nearly half of its midsize farms in the Midwest, according to a new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) that looked at U.S. farmland consolidation trends between 1978 and 2017.

The study found that nationally, nearly 700,000 midsize farms (those between 50 and 999 acres) disappeared during that timeframe. Meanwhile, large crop farms (those over 1,000 acres) ballooned in size, collectively growing by about 100 million acres, an area the size of California.

The study analyzed county-level data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Census of Agriculture to track how the acreage of midsize and larger farms has changed over time, and how those changes are connected to the barriers to success that new farmers and Black farmers face today.

Consolidation has disproportionately affected the Midwest where 230,000 midsize farms were lost over the past forty years, according to the study. At the same time, there was a loss of young farmers in the Midwest. The number of Midwest farmers under the age of 35 went from comprising 18 percent of all farmers in the region in 1978 to just 6 percent in 2017.

In addition, the trend was connected to greater difficulty for new farmers trying to break into the profession. In 2017, they made up 13 percent of U.S. farmers, a five percent drop from 1978. In the Midwest counties where land consolidated the most rapidly into fewer and larger farms, the share of new farmers shrank the fastest—56 percent faster than in other counties.

The study found states with more farmland consolidation from 1978 to 2017 experienced a disproportionate decline in representation of Black farmers relative to other states on average. Previous research has shown how systematic discrimination drove the loss of 90 percent of Black-owned farmland during the past century, but changes in the way the USDA gathers and reports data make it difficult to track changes for Black farmers in more recent decades.

“Consolidation of U.S. farmland into the hands of fewer and fewer farm owners is one of the first dominos in a long row of reasons why it is so difficult for new farmers, young farmers and BIPOC farmers to enter and succeed in agriculture,” said Dr. Rafter Ferguson, study author and scientist in the Food and Environment program at UCS. “Agriculture is facing very serious challenges which will only worsen in the coming years. We need a diverse and vibrant farming community to face those challenges head on. We need to tear down the barriers that stand in the way of that, support the next generation of farmers and repair the harm that a century of discrimination has done to Black farmers.”

The study notes previous research showed that in the coming decade, as the aging farmer population retires, an estimated 400 million acres of U.S. farmland, more than 40 percent of all farm acreage, is set to change hands. This could either contribute to further farmland consolidation and continued difficulties for Black farmers, Indigenous farmers and people of color farmers, or it can create opportunities and undo some of consolidation’s worst impacts.

“The shift from midsize to large farms has paralleled a number of frustrating challenges in rural communities, including a shrinking rural middle class, declining tax base, lack of investment in public infrastructure and funding for social services and increased poverty and inequality,” said Ferguson. “But this outcome is not inevitable. We can slow, and eventually reverse, the relentless consolidation of farmland and disintegration of rural communities with dedicated funding, innovative policies and support from across the sector.”

To address the disproportionate inequities stemming from continued farmland consolidation, the study recommends Congress and the USDA increase funding and support for programs that enable farmers, in particular Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) farmers, to access, own and retain land. The study recommends establishing tax incentives and implementing changes to inheritance rules, as well as establishing a national land trust to buy land from retiring farmers and sell it interest-free to new and BIPOC farmers.

“Without a focused effort to level the playing field for midsize farms, the next generation of farming innovators –new farmers, younger farmers, Black farmers and farmers of color – is effectively locked out,” said Ferguson. “The USDA has the tools to change this trajectory and begin repairing a long history of inequitable support for smaller and BIPOC-owned farms.”