By Jordan Strickler
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The USDA is awarding 24 grants to 20 universities focusing on the importance of small and medium-sized farms. The goal of the grants is to help ensure America’s small and medium-sized farms become more profitable and improve the quality of life in America’s farm communities.
“Few groups are as resilient and as determined as American farm families,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a news release. “This investment in innovative research will give these family farms the tools they need to be more sustainable, profitable and productive as they face agricultural and economic challenges. When American farmers have a chance to compete, they have a greater chance at succeeding.”
Issued through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the goal is to focus efforts on alternative crop enterprises, marketing and scaling up fruit and vegetable production to overcome marketing constraints. By focusing on these key elements, small and medium-sized farm operators can increase their competitiveness in local markets and can provide greater access to food for their communities.
One program, “Taking the Next Step as a Small and Medium Sized Farm: Understanding the Integration of Production, Food Safety, and Profitability,” is a project being undertaken by Purdue University to which they were awarded almost $500,000.
“We’re trying to help farmers in their decision-making process for looking at soil health, food safety and profitability and the integration of those systems for those decision-making processes,” says Maria Marshall, North Central Regional Center for Rural Development. “Farmers need to be thinking about their market, what consumers demand is and what they’re looking for. They have to be thinking about this, not only in terms of the products they grow, but about customers’ concerns for how those products are grown. Producers have to be thinking about the whole system.”
The Purdue program will be using a combination of field days, workshops, webinars and a new website to teach producers ways improve their operations.
“I think that there are there are just certain things that smaller and medium-sized farmers are contending with. I think a lot of farms of those sizes are just being underserviced,” said Marshall.
According to the USDA, 90 percent of farms are considered small farms (that making less than $350,000 per year). Large-scale farms (those making more than $1 million per year) represent only 2.5 percent of farms, but account for more than half of the nation’s produce.
After peaking at 6.8 million farms in 1935, the number of U.S. farms fell sharply until the early 1970s. Rapidly falling farm numbers during the earlier period reflected growing productivity in agriculture and increased nonfarm employment opportunities. Since then, the number of U.S. farms has continued to decline, though at a slower rate. In a 2019 USDA survey, there were 2.02 million U.S. farms in that year, down from 2.20 million in 2007. With 897 million acres of land in farms in 2019, the average farm size was 444 acres, only slightly greater than the 440 acres recorded in the early 1970s.