Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis smiling in front of a dense cornfield

So You Want to Be a Corn Farmer?

A man in a blue shirt and backwards baseball cap standing in front of a dense cornfield
"When our great grandfathers were children growing up in Greene, people bragged on 40-bushel harvests. A hundred years later, we harvested almost 180 bushels, what for our time was quite average—our small part of the biggest corn harvest in American history."
—Ian Cheney, KING CORN filmmaker
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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.

"I’ll guarantee you that if you go out there and raise an acre of corn without any government payments, you’re gonna lose money."
—Chuck Pyatt
Chuck Pyatt
Rich Johnson
"Farmers are, the ones that are in it are getting bigger. You either have to be in it at a pretty good size or you kinda get squeezed out."
—Rich Johnson
"We aren’t growing quality. We’re growing crap. Poorest quality crap the world’s ever seen, we’re growing it today."
—Don Clikeman
Don Clikeman
Elna Clikeman
"There’s an awful lot of farmsteads that are just plain disappearing. You go down the road here and...there’s just so many of the homesteads that are gone."
—Elna Clikeman
Beyond state- or school-based organizations, non-profit farmers’ advocacy groups, such as the Practical Farmers of Iowa or the New England Small Farm Institute, offer both economic and practical encouragement for farmers interested in regionally based farming that exists outside of the corporate system.

For new farmers eager to produce on a small scale, here are a few places to begin the journey:

Cornell University: Small Farms Program

North Carolina Cooperative Extension: Growing Small Farms

Sustainable Small Farms Education: Cultivating Success

University of Florida Extension: Small Farms Alternative Enterprises

University of Idaho Extension: Small Farms

University of Illinois Extension: Illinois Small Farms

Washington State University: Small Farms Team

U.S. Department of Agriculture: Small Farm Funding Resources

Practical Farmers of Iowa: Youth and Next Generation Program

Growing New Farmers: A Community of New Farmers and Service Providers

The New England Small Farm Institute

The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems

Updated 4/14/08

Find out about U.S. farm policy and its powerful effect on the American food system >>

View a timeline of the history of corn >>

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