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United States Farms Dropping in Number: What’s Behind the Change?

The number of farms in the United States is down to the lowest that it’s been in six years, according to the Associated Press. In 2012 alone, 11,630 farms were lost, and this trend is projected to continue. Along with the lost farms, over 3 million acres of viable farmland were lost – a significant amount, considering that the average farm is just over 400 acres in size. This trend is unsettling at the least, as large-scale farms have long been a source of economic prosperity in the areas where they are plentiful. At the same time, small-scale farms have been a means for families to support themselves in areas where other forms of employment may be scarce. With fewer acres of active farmland and the numbers still decreasing, we can only hope to find a way to reverse the change. Even those who do not live or work on farms still suffer from the decreasing farmlands across the country, as it affects the entire country’s economy and food sourcing.

What is to Blame for the Loss of Small Farms?

Small farms are suffering the worst, while large farms are surviving at a higher rate. Overall, the number of large commercial farms – defined as farms that see $500,000 or more in annual income – actually rose by more than 8 percent in 2012. The smallest family farms suffered the worst, with farms that see $10,000 or less in income dropping by over 2 percent. It seems that commercialization is the key to surviving as a farm in the United States, but it’s unclear immediately why family farms are suffering so badly. It may be the case that Environmental Protection Agency regulations over the last six years are causing small family farms to suffer. Since regulations began to change, farmers have been subject to requirements that cost more than the farms are able to absorb.

Specifically, EPA proposals have necessitated greater government control over the production of any farm products set for human consumption, at the cost of the farmer. Some proposals actually duplicate existing law in some form, but with added cost. An example is the Pesticide General Permit, which has been effective in November 2011 and which covers the same rules and regulations as the 1947 Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act does. In effect, farmers must pay for a permit that duplicates existing laws. With unnecessary legislation doing very little to visibly improve the individual farmer’s bottom line or output, the cost is too high for many farms to continue operating, and the result is that valuable farmland goes to waste as farms are forced to stop production.

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The number of regulations now bogging down small farmers is becoming too many to count. The state regulates everything, from supply to harvest and every process in between. One notable area in which regulations are harming the small farm is transportation. Every farmer uses trucks and tractors to haul supplies around as needed, whether across the farm or to a farmer’s market and back. The United States Department of Transportation now necessitates that the state regulates the use of vehicles on the farm. Even a short trip needs to be documented and recorded with the state if it is done near a legally defined farm or for the commercial benefit of that farm.

Of particular offense to family-owned farms is a regulation by the United States Department of Labor that severely limits the context in which children are allowed to help on a farm that is owned by their own family. With the number of farms country-wide that are operated on a family basis, this means that the majority of farms will now lose a significant source of labor and along with it, work ethic imparted to the children of these farm owners. Plenty of farms are a family affair, and with children banned from working on the farm until they’re old enough to work outside of it, fewer farms are going to continue in the tradition of family out of pure necessity.

Are Farms Disappearing Outside of These Issues?

Farmland is disappearing at a rapid rate even without considering the farms themselves that are disappearing. Between 2002 and 2007, the National Resources Inventory shows that over 4 million acres of farmland disappeared for developmental use, and the trend is only increasing now. Instead of farms disappearing just due to economic failure from imposing regulations – which is not preferable, but at least makes sense – farms are also disappearing because they are being bought out in exchange for more acres to build housing developments and suburban communities around. Farmland that still exists after the loss of a farm can always regrow into another farm if an entrepreneur chooses to use it that way. Unfortunately, farmland that is repossessed and repurposed into a gated community or a shopping mall will never return to being a farm and contributing to the agricultural economy of the country.

The consequences are huge, no matter what reason we attribute to the farms disappearing. With the highest-earning, most commercialized farms being the ones that thrive the best, crop shrinkage is becoming a problem. This gradual loss of crops over time is not always accidental either. The farms that produce the most food are also the ones that can afford to throw away produce that is imperfect, but otherwise perfectly edible. Supermarkets and superstores prefer to stock produce that is aesthetically perfect, so there is little chance that a small produce farmer can sell to these outlets without throwing away time and revenue. When the price of harvesting and selling a crop is higher than the potential return, farmers might leave entire crops to rot, leading to huge waste, both economic and in terms of resources.

At the same time as the government pushes away farmlands, the United States population is growing enormously – to the point of doubling every fifty years, according to the United States Census. When the country has decreased agricultural production along with a bigger population to feed, the only solution is to turn to outsourcing food resources. Instead of coming from in state, or even in country, it’s more likely that most foods are coming from abroad. This leads to bigger food transportation costs, lower quality food from the rigors of travel, and food that doesn’t always trace back to an identifiable source. When you remember that the United States was perfectly capable of producing its own food before farmland acreage became a government-instated problem, this seems wasteful at best.

How Do We Deal With This?

Obviously, the ideal solution is to somehow reverse the regulations that exacerbate the loss of farms, but this is unlikely and difficult to accomplish on an individual basis. What we should do as individuals, as families, and as communities is simple: we need to learn to provide for ourselves. When the food source is monopolized and controlled by government agricultural standards, it makes sense to take charge of the food source for our own households by growing as much of our own food as possible. Naturally, this depends on living situations, as not every household can start a dairy farm or a meat farm. However, everyone has the space to grow their own herbs and vegetables, whether by indoor box gardening or carving out a niche in the backyard dedicated to an annual harvest. We may not be able to reverse the lost farm trend, but we can take back our own food sources by providing for ourselves wherever possible.

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