A candid look at U.S. farms: Most are a hobby

Hoard's Dairyman: 

A candid look at U.S. farms: Most are a hobby

Date: 
Fri, 02/18/2011

TV newscasts and city newspaper articles dote on the idyllic image of small farms while deriding commercial agriculture, all the while blissfully ignorant about which group actually feeds America. But numbers don’t lie: Without big farms most consumers would starve.

According to USDA’s 2010 summary of “Farms, Land in Farms, and Livestock Operations” released this week, 55.9 percent of all farms generated less than $10,000 income in 2010, and more than two-thirds generated less than the government’s $25,790 poverty threshold for a family of five.

By comparison, one cow making 50 pounds of milk for 305 days that was sold for $14 per hundredweight would generate $2,135 in income.

For the fourth year in a row, total U.S. farm numbers were unchanged at 2.2 million, and average size was unchanged at 418 acres. Keep in mind, though, that “farm” is very liberally defined by the survey as, “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold or normally would have been sold during the year.”

Even more antiquated is the summary’s definition of a milk cow operation: “Any place having one or more head of milk cows on hand on December 31.” Of the 62,500 such operations tabulated for 2010, nearly one-third fell into the under-29 head category:

Herd size Number of operations Share of cows Share of milk
1-29 20,000 1.7% 1.1%
30-49 11,000 4.7% 3.5%
50-99 15,500 11.8% 10.4%
100-199 8,600 12.3% 11.3%
200-499 4,000 12.8% 12.7%
500-999 1,720 12.6% 13.0%
1,000-1,999 920 13.3% 15.5%
2,000+ 760 30.8% 32.5%

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The last two lines of this table should jump out at milk producers: almost half of the country’s milk in 2010 was produced by just 1,680 dairies, and nearly one-third was produced by just 760. Those are figures that say the oft-repeated statement that all milk needed in the U.S. could be produced by 3,000 3,000-cow dairies is already close enough to reality to not be such a crazy idea at all.