Agriculture

How We Got Here: Iowa farms grow in size, but there are fewer of them

Technological advances and the need for economies of scale have pushed the trend

A storm rolls in on Friday, June 29, 2012, in Maquoketa. Eastern and Central Iowa is in a moderate drought after a dry growing season, but storms are expected this weekend. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)
A storm rolls in on Friday, June 29, 2012, in Maquoketa. Eastern and Central Iowa is in a moderate drought after a dry growing season, but storms are expected this weekend. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

Iowa’s farms are getting bigger in size but falling in number.

Since 1977, the number of Iowa farms has fallen by about 30 percent while the average farm size in acres has grown by 30 percent, federal data show. The historical flow of people moving to non-farm jobs, the need for economies of scale and technological advances that make it easier for one person to farm more land all have contributed to this trend, said Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University.

John McGlothlen / The Gazette

“One farmer today, you could argue, is maybe worth two farmers 50 years ago in terms of the amount of production they can do, in terms of the amount of acres they can cover because of the technology,” Hart said.

These changes bring both positives and negatives, he added. For example, Iowa and U.S. farmers overall still can produce lots of food, keeping costs low for consumers. But rural towns that rely on farms to survive can see population and economic losses as people leave the industry.

“It used to be that (agriculture) employed everybody, and now we need fewer folks employed there. Well, what do you move to? What sort of other employment opportunities are out there?” Hart said.

John McGlothlen / The Gazette

Technological advancements and land price increases also have made farming a money-intensive industry. That can be a barrier for younger Iowans who want to operate a farm but cannot afford to do so.

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Hart suggested policymakers should look at ways to use the benefits of farm consolidation to better those communities. Lawmakers, for example, can use ag-focused legislation, such as the federal farm bill, to put funding into rural infrastructure, increased internet access or job training programs for those small towns.

“How do we foster those job opportunities in rural communities? How do we invest to grow other businesses in those rural communities? That’s sort of the challenge,” Hart said.

John McGlothlen / The Gazette

Each edition, “How We Got Here” looks at an important trend in the state, how it happened and why it matters

Comments: (319) 398-8366; matthew.patane@thegazette.com

 

This story appears in the June 24, 2018 edition of the Iowa Ideas magazine. Find it in The Gazette, or single copies and subscriptions are available for purchase at store.thegazette.com

 

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