Friday, January 24, 2014

New measuring stick gives clearer picture of how size of farms in U.S. is increasing

An August report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture could be one of the keys to solving the continued debate over limits on farm payments, a contentious subject in the struggle to pass a new Farm Bill, David Rogers reports for Politico. But beyond that, it gives a clearer picture of how farm size is increasing, says USDA's Economic Research Service, which did the work.

The ERS report "introduces a measure of midpoint acreage in which half of all cropland acres are on farms with more cropland than the midpoint, and half are on farms with less. Midpoint acreage is revealed to be a more informative measure of cropland consolidation than either a simple median (in which half of all farms are either larger or smaller) or the simple mean (which is average cropland per farm)," the study's authors write. (ERS graphic: Measures of average farm size)

Researchers found that "the midpoint acreage for U.S. cropland nearly doubled between 1982 and 2007, from 589 acres to 1,105, and midpoint acreages increased in 45 of 50 States and more than doubled in 16," according to the report. "The largest increases occurred in a contiguous group of 12 Corn Belt and Northern Plains states; midpoint acreages more than doubled in each of 5 major field crops (corn, cotton, rice, soybeans, and wheat) and increased in 35 of 39 fruit and vegetable crops, where the average increase was 107 percent; the shifts were persistent, with a general pattern of increase between each Census of Agriculture conducted between 1982 and 2007."

The report, though, states that  "less comprehensive evidence from annual surveys suggests that the pace of consolidation slowed between 2007 and 2011, the last year for which data are available. Data from the 2012 Census will provide more definitive evidence of recent trends; and larger crop farms continue to realize better financial performance: average rates of return on equity increased with farm size in five major commodity categories analyzed in this report (corn, soybeans, wheat, fruits, and vegetables). In turn, larger farms utilize labor and capital more intensively, which provide them with the primary source of their financial advantage."

Rogers writes, "The new midpoint index is a more telling measurement than simply averaging the size of all farms nationally." He also says Mississippi "stands out, going from 950 acres to 1,950 acres. But the Midwest saw the greatest change. The weighted median values for harvested acres in North Dakota went from 882 acres to 2,240 in the same 25-year period. Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota all saw a better-than-100-percent jump. Government commodity payments appear to have had less to do with this consolidation than other factors — the search for higher profits, greater efficiencies of scale and an abundance of flat land making it easier to merge farms." (Read more) (ERS graphic: Changes in midpoint acreage for cropland from 1982-2007)

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