Iowa Ideas
Iowa Ideas

To provide a nonpartisan, statewide learning experience

designed to explore the key questions and big ideas that will shape the future of Iowa.

The changing face of Iowa's family farms

Larger and fewer farms, but most still family-owned

Apr 28, 2017 at 5:30 am
    Ryan Kress operates the feed truck while delivering to a hog site in Winthrop on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

    Family farms, the wellspring of many Iowans’ values, have shrunk in number and gotten larger and more complex, but, with few exceptions, they are still run by families.

    “Yes, farms have changed. The farms are bigger and more specialized. The machinery is nicer. The yields have doubled. But they are still operated by families who want to take care of soil and water,” said Iowa Corn Promotion Board President Larry Klever, who raises corn and soybeans near Audubon.

    Klever said family farmers, who operate more than 97 percent of the state’s farms, are tired of hearing that food today is produced mainly by soulless corporations and industrialized agriculture.

    Family farmers reject the “Big Ag stigma” often associated with large-scale grain and livestock production, he said.


    But modern farms “do tend to mirror the corporate model more than the old image of the family farm,” said Neil Harl, a retired Iowa State University agriculture and economics professor and longtime observer of the Iowa farm scene.

    In 1950, in an era before farm values were expressed in dollars per acre, Iowa had 206,000 farms with an average size of 169 acres, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

    On those idyllic family farms, children did chores before and after school and learned to appreciate their neighbors, the soil that sustained them and the value of hard work.

    By 2012, the year of the most recent USDA farm census, the number of Iowa farms had decreased by well more than half to 88,637, and the average size had more than doubled to 345 acres.

    That average size, however, is somewhat misleading, considering that the state’s larger farms, while relatively few, control most of the state’s farmland and produce most of the state’s agricultural output.

    In 2013, for example, Iowa had 27,200 farms with an annual output of less than $10,000. While they made up 30.7 percent of Iowa farms, their average size was 44 acres, and their combined 1.2 million acres comprised just 3.9 percent of Iowa farmland.

    At the other end of the spectrum, Iowa had 17,700 farms with an annual output exceeding $500,000. They made up just 20 percent of the state’s farms, but with an average size of 1,034 acres, their combined 18.3 million acres encompassed 59.8 percent of the state’s farmland.

    “Farming is a business, but it is not just a business. It’s a way of life."

    - Larry Klever

    Iowa Corn Promotion Board President


    USDA’s Economic Research Service defines family farms as those whose principal operator and people related to the principal operator by blood or marriage own most of the farm business.

    Lance Bell and his wife, Kerri, operate a typical family farm, raising corn and soybeans on 1,100 acres in Washington County.

    Lance, 54, who farms with his 76-year-old dad, Pete, grew up on the farm, just as his twin 14-year-old daughters, Ellie and Sophie, are doing today.

    If the twins continue to follow their early inclinations, he said, they may be the next generation on the family farm.

    “They are showing a lot of interest. The girls are running some of the equipment and helping out wherever they can. They are learning about the business side of farming by renting some ground from their grandparents,” he said.

    Bell said he thinks his daughters are learning many of the same values he learned growing up more than 40 years ago.

    “They are developing ‘get it done’ attitudes and learning the rewards of a job well done,” he said

    Because so many farm operations must be accomplished when conditions are favorable, that old saying, “make hay when the sun shines,” still applies, he said.


    Unlike most young farmers, who pursue their occupation by joining family operations, Ryan Kress, 35, of Winthrop, worked his way up from a part-time job in high school and college to a partnership in a 2,000-acre Buchanan County farm that finishes 25,000 hogs per year.

    When Kress graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in 2004 with a degree in finance, he planned to pursue a career as a financial adviser. But a job offer from his longtime employers, John and Liz Francois, intervened, and five years later, the arrangement developed into a partnership.

    “I bring the labor, and they have the equipment,” said Kress, who estimates that he spends three-fourths of his time caring for hogs.

    The self-reliant operation controls costs, he said, by grinding its own feed, handling its own manure and hauling its own hogs to market.

    Kress said he spends much of each day checking the welfare of hogs at 10 separate barns and grinding and delivering the 150 tons of feed they consume each week.

    His college courses, he said, have proved valuable in another important part of the job — the detailed record keeping and analysis used to track feed efficiency and rates of gain.

    “I love what I do. I can’t think of a day when I didn’t want to go to work. Hard as it is, I find a way to enjoy it,” he said.

    While many family farms are structured as partnerships and limited liability corporations, primarily for tax purposes, most of them are owned by family members involved in their operation, Klever said.

    “Farming is a business, but it is not just a business. It’s a way of life,” Klever said

    “Our core value — to leave the land as good as or better than we found it — has not changed,” he said.

    “We’re always looking for more land,” said Mark Recker, 47, who grows corn and soybeans with his 87-year-old dad, Larry, on 1,500 acres in Fayette County.

    “You need to attain a certain size to achieve the economies of scale you need to survive. It makes a lot more sense to have one big tractor, planter and combine than several smaller ones,” Recker said.

    As farms grow larger, they must become more businesslike — but family ties are still stronger than lines on an organization chart, he said.

    ISU’s Harl, who has witnessed first hand the transformation of the traditional family farm into a much larger model of economic efficiency, said the change was driven by quantum leaps in the technologies of power and seed genetics.

    The shift from horses to mechanical power in the 1940s enabled one farmer to do the work of five, and hybrid seed made that work even more productive, said Harl, 83, who owns the Appanoose County farm where he grew up.

    Harl said his thousand acres had 12 farmsteads on it in his youth. Today, there is but one farmstead, that of his tenant, he said.

    A comparison of the 1957 and 2016 plat books for almost any Iowa county tells a similar story — farmsteads either replaced by residential acreages or absorbed by grain fields. The remaining farmsteads — transformed from barns, corncribs, hog houses and chicken houses to grain bins, machine sheds and livestock confinements — also bear witness to the expansion and specialization of the family farm.

    “I love what I do. I can’t think of a day when I didn’t want to go to work. Hard as it is, I find a way to enjoy it."

    - Ryan Kress



    Harl said the exodus of farmers has shrunk his hometown of Seymour from 1,200 residents in his youth to about 700 today. A town with five grocery stories and 45 students per graduating class now has a Casey’s convenience store and classes of 12 students, he said.

    Harl said today’s farmers “still value their grandparents’ values and recognize that they had a good life, but it will be more difficult to live that life as farms get larger — and they will get larger.”

    “The transformation of the traditional family farm into an industrial scale business has sacrificed relationships important to the quality of our lives,” said John Ikerd of Fairfield, professor emeritus of agriculture and economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

    Ikerd, who grew up on a family farm in Missouri, said it was a good place to raise a family and to teach children responsibility and a sense of importance in contributing to the family’s welfare.

    The operators of today’s larger family farms still share those values, “but they are caught up in a system” that demands those values be subordinated to the precepts of big business, he said.

    Ikerd said he spent the first half of his career promoting the government policy to “get big or get out,” as expressed by 1970s U.S. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz. But Ikerd said he changed his mind in the 1980s, when adherence to those policies bankrupted many family farms and forced their operators off the land.

    “I couldn’t understand why so many farmers were committing suicide over bankruptcy,” he said. “But then I realized they were so closely connected with their farms that, having lost so much of themselves, they couldn’t go on.”

    This story appears in the second edition of the Iowa Ideas magazine. Order a free copy here.

    Direct Iowa Ideas updates sent to you for free.