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Changing Agriculture Affects South's Look
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Sociologists see a disappearing middle in many areas of American life, and agriculture is no exception.
Joe Molnar, professor of rural sociology at Auburn University, said large farms are getting larger and more small farms are springing up while mid-size farms are declining. His findings were released in "Agriculture in transition: Food and fiber livelihoods in an industrialized context," a publication of the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University.
"We wanted to provide a good view of what was going on in the structure of agriculture and to look at changes in the number and type of farms in the South," Molnar said of the study.
Using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, he documented the shrinking number of middle-size farms, the growing size of large farms and the growing number of small farms.
"From 1993 to 1997, we lost almost 12 percent of farms with annual sales between $10,000 and $1 million, and the land in these mid-sized farms declined by about 6.7 percent," Molnar said. "At the same time, the number of small farms increased by almost 5 percent, but the total small farm land dropped by almost half of a percent."
Molnar said this data points to the fragmentation of rural areas. Interstate highways, the growth of smaller metropolitan areas surrounded by available farm land and the booming economy make farm life a genuine escape from urban densities. As more people seek a slice of rural life, they are buying small farms for lifestyle and recreational reasons.
Large farms are reacting to many of the same circumstances by growing larger.
"The technology and cost structure of agriculture are forcing our food production into large, well-organized entities that have connections to larger processing and marketing opportunities," Molnar said. "Smaller and mid-sized farms are not able to compete on this scale."
With many small farms in the business for lifestyle reasons and large farms fighting to be more competitive, the survival of mid-sized farms is at stake.
Other rural Southern trends Molnar identified were the sharp decrease in the number of black-operated farms. In 75 years, the number of U.S. farms owned by blacks decreased from 14 percent to 1 percent, a 98 percent drop.
Molnar also pointed to changes in crop production and animal industries. With the 1996 Farm Bill, the government's system of crop deficiency payments were replaced by fixed but declining contract payments. Farmers were given freedom to plant what they wanted and became more responsible for managing their own crop risk.
Animal production farms continue to get fewer and larger, with industry integration and contract farming. These large, integrated farms are increasingly concerned with public image and are under increased scrutiny from environmental groups, Molnar said.
Molnar said all this adds up to fewer but larger farms, a stabilized number of people living on farms and fewer people earning livelihoods from agriculture. Integrated contract farming is expected to grow, and the shrinking number of farms that provide most of the farm production will remain highly competitive.
The entire report on "Agriculture in transition: Food and fiber livelihoods in an industrialized context" is available online by calling the Southern Rural Development Center at (662) 325-3207.
Contact: Joe Molnar, (334) 844-5615