'We're Not Reading Our History': The Disappearance of Small Farms

Apr 30, 2018

Small farms represented 46 percent of production in the United States in 1991.  But by 2015, that share had fallen to under 25 percent, according to the US Department of Agriculture.  Among dairy farms in Wisconsin, the numbers are striking - the state topped out at 167,000 in 1940 and now has just 9,000.

While the average farm size grows, the total amount of land in farming has remained the same and small farms are feeling the pinch as agribusiness dominates.

"Small farms are dying, and this is true probably across the board - whether it's poultry, beef, pork, or vegetables for that matter," says farming contributor David Kozlowski of Pinehold Gardens in Oak Creek.  "What we've seen is we're not reading our history - this is the same thing that happened in the late '70s and early '80s, which caused the so-called farm crisis of that time."

Credit USDA Economic Research Service

The trend has been big farming since post-World War II, Kozlowski says, especially with the advent of new technology to aid in the size and scale of food production. Add in inflation and consolidation, and you have the resulting struggle to make ends meet on a small, family farm, he explains.

"As a small, family farm, once all the farms get bigger our supply chains go away, so we're losing the supply chains that support our small to mid-size farms as well," Kirsten Jurcek of Brattset Family Farm says.

Kozlowski adds that the large farms dominating the market also means that food supply chains have less resiliency. In a climate of not just price increases, but temperature increases and climate change, we need to think smaller, not bigger, he says.

Credit Wisconsin Farmers Union

"What if we lose California - are we prepared? Do we have a resilient food system? Do we have a way of bouncing back from that loss of that chain?" asks Kozlowski.

Sarah Lloyd, a local diary farmer and program coordinator for the Wisconsin Farmers Union, says big agribusiness doesn't just hurt small farms currently, but the communities surrounding the farms. "I'm really concerned about the countryside and rural communities because how is that ever going to transfer to the next generation?"

Kozlowski says that this issue is really an urban issue, not simply a rural one, because "the city is our marketplace."

"Unless folks here get concerned about the environmental issues and quite frankly, some of the health issues of the food that's being produced elsewhere, then nothing's really going to happen. Because the government's not really going to act and markets aren't going to reflect any changes," he says.

To help shift the current trend of big agribusiness, Kozlowski, Lloyd, and Jurcek advocate becoming educated about where your food comes from and how it was raised. "I really encourage people to be food citizens," says Lloyd. "You're making a political statement with your dollars, but you also have an obligation whether you're in a city or rural space to make sure you're in touch with your county, state, and federal government. Make sure that they understand how important it is to you as a consumer."

Lloyd says an easy place to start is to look for the #55 on food products when you're shopping - that shows it's been processed in Wisconsin.