PITTSBURG -- Results of the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture were released last week, and following a trend that has continued over the past decade, they show the total number of farms in the state decreasing as the average farm size increases.
The Census of Agriculture is taken every five years. Although the last one was in 2017, the results were not published until April 11 of this year. In 2007 there were more than 65,500 farms recorded in Kansas, a number which decreased to less than 62,000 in 2012, and most recently dipped below 60,000 for a total of 58,569 farms in the state. Over the same period the average size of Kansas farms has increased from 707 acres in 2007, to 747 in 2012, to 781 in 2017, according to the newly released figures.
“We’re seeing fewer farmers and they are getting bigger,” said Mark Nelson, director of commodities at the Kansas Farm Bureau. While changes over the period between 2012 and 2017 were not as extreme as between 2007 and 2012, Nelson said the latest census figures are “just kind of continuation of the trend.”
Crawford County appears to be following the statewide trend. In 2012, according to the Census, there were 846 farms in the county with an average size of 382 acres. In 2017, the total number of farms was down to 777, while the average acreage had increased to 431.
There are many factors behind the trend towards fewer and bigger farms, Nelson said, which actually goes back to the 1930s. While tight margins on prices of crops, dairy products and pork are impacting farmers, causing some to get out of the industry, technological advances have also made it possible for a single farmer to cover more acreage.
Jeri Geren, diversified agriculture and natural resources specialist at Wildcat Extension District, similarly said the trend towards a lower number of farms that are getting bigger on average has been ongoing for several years, and that commodity prices are not great right now, which is likely a factor in discouraging farmers to continue working in the industry.
“If you also look at the average age of a farmer, it’s a lot higher than the average in the American workforce,” Geren said. “So as people are leaving farming, not as many people are getting into it.”
Neighboring counties have seen similar changes to those in Crawford County and the state overall. Bourbon County in 2012 had a total of 903 farms with an average size of 370 acres. This was down to 813 farms in 2017, while average farm size increased to 413 acres. Allen County had 650 farms in 2012, with an average of 377 acres. The total number of farms in Allen County decreased to 505 in 2017, while acreage of those remaining was up to 475 on average. In Neosho County there were 702 farms in 2012, with an average size of 439 acres. In 2017, the number of farms in the county had decreased to 687, while average acreage was up to 470.
While much of southeast Kansas seems fairly typical of the state as a whole, other nearby counties are bucking the statewide trend.
Cherokee County had 729 farms in 2012 with an average size of 423 acres. In 2017 the total number of farms increased to 756, while average farm size decreased just slightly to 422 acres. In Labette County, meanwhile, both the number of farms and their average size increased between 2012 and 2017, from 977 farms to 997, and from an average of 379 acres to 400.
For comparison, a similar trend to the one in Kansas has been observable in Missouri over the same time period. In 2007 the state had more than 107,000 farms, which decreased to 99,171 in 2012, and 95,320 in 2017. Average farm acreage in Missouri, meanwhile, has increased from 269 acres in 2007, to 285 in 2012, to 291 in 2017.
Barton County, Missouri, has followed the statewide trend, with 940 farms in 2012 and an average size of 353 acres. This was down to 865 farms in 2017, with an average size of 383 acres.
In Jasper County, Missouri, however, recent changes appear closer to the situation in Labette County. The total number of farms in 2012 was 1,299, averaging 190 acres. By 2017 there were 1,315 farms, while average acreage also increased to 201.
While Kansas farmers face some adversity, there are also reasons to remain optimistic.
Nelson noted that between 91 and 96 percent of Kansas farms remain family businesses, the state is still farming a lot of acreage, and the agricultural economy in the state remains strong. Nelson said that resolving international trade issues and reestablishing some foreign markets that have been impacted by those issues “would be a massive benefit” to Kansas agriculture and the state’s economy in general.
Geren said Kansas farmers continue to produce high quality crops and products, which keeps the state’s agricultural economy competitive despite challenges it faces.