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In 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, nearly seven million farms dotted the American countryside, and about 40 percent of them were small, family operations of fewer than 50 acres. In contrast, at the time of the last agricultural census in 2002, only 2.1 million farms of any size remained in the United States. Meanwhile, the average size of the American farm had skyrocketed to 441 acres. Throughout the past 70 years, the “get big or get out” formula has seemed to ring true in farming.
Beyond this dramatic decline in the number of small farms, and the parallel increase in acreage-per-farm, the business of food production in the United States has become increasingly consolidated. By the end of the 1990s, four agricultural firms controlled more than 40 percent of the processing of major crops. Corporations like ConAgra, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland increasingly dominate nearly every link in the chain of industrial food production. ConAgra, for example, controls not only the production of cattle feed and the operation of grain elevators, but also the raising of cattle in feedlots, the ownership of the barges and rail cars that transport animals to the slaughterhouse and the distribution of the Slim Jims and Manwich cans on supermarket shelves.
Nevertheless, the loss of hundreds of thousands of small and mid-sized farms, and the concentration of agricultural power, has not stopped many young Americans from striving for small farm success. Despite a smorgasbord of challenges, agricultural colleges and extension programs across the United States are reaching out to new, small-scale farmers with professional support and educational resources.
For new farmers eager to produce on a small scale, here are a few places to begin the journey: