November 25, 2005
Changes on the Farm
Drive less than 20 minutes from almost any crossroads in Indiana and you’ll come across a feature of the Midwest landscape that we take for granted, namely, farm land. The vast open space that still exists in abundance between our state’s urban areas remains dominated by the industry that once employed more people than any other – agriculture.
And while the sights of barns, crop land, and animals grazing in pastures are familiar to us all, we should remember that looks can be deceiving. Because there are plenty of new and unfamiliar things happening in the ag industry these days that we should all know about.
Farming is a business, but it’s not like any other. Its roots in our nation’s history run deep, and its political clout, while eroding, still remains much larger than its economic footprint would suggest. The involvement of government in almost every aspect of the industry’s operation, through subsidies, quotas, price supports, and specialized tax treatment, reflects its special status in our cultural landscape, yet no policy crafted in Washington has stemmed the sweeping tide that is altering agriculture before our eyes.
In a word, that tide is consolidation. In all but 9 of the state’s 92 counties, there were fewer farms in existence in 2002, the most recent year for which full data are available, than there were just five years earlier. In half of the counties that had fewer farms, the decline was greater than 10 percent.
Those farms that remain are getting larger. In 1997, 5.2 percent of all farms in Indiana had more than 1,000 acres of land in production. In 2002 that grew to 6.3 percent. The average value of land and buildings of an Indiana farm in 1997 was $486,171, but grew to $637,645 in 2002.
The data available since 2002 show no signs of this trend abating. The 70,454 Hoosiers who owned, operated, or worked on farms statewide in 2004 were about 3,000 fewer than those that were counted in 2002. And while farm income in 2004 was up very strongly, thanks to significant price growth and a strong harvest, the $2 billion paid in profits and earnings in that year still accounted for only 1.2 percent of the total for all industries in the state.
Those kinds of statistics doubtless explain why agriculture is rarely found on the lists of industries targeted for special emphasis in economic development these days, even in the state’s most rural communities. Many of us who are waking up to the realization that durable goods manufacturing can’t be depended on to propel future growth in the state think that the heyday of farming as an economic driver is long past.
In a narrow sense, that’s right – we’re not an agriculture based economy today, and we probably never will be again. But there’s a lot more to food production than farming. And, besides, there’s more uses for crops nowadays that just food. With so much healthy and productive farm land all around us, shouldn’t we be thinking about ways that we capitalize on that proximity and take a bigger role in exploiting those opportunities?
It’s a question more Indiana communities are beginning to ask. The potential for higher value-added ag-related production processes – ranging from bio-diesel plants to hog production facilities – adding to the local economic base are nothing to sneeze at for the smaller towns and rural regions that have been standing on the sidelines watching larger cities grow.
About the Author
Bank Failures Warn of Deeper Economic ProblemsDuring the Great Recession, a whopping 0.014 percent of banks were closed by the FDIC.
Remote Work Through the Eyes of Three 20-SomethingsRemote work is here to stay.
Remote Work and Labor MarketsThere are more remote workers today than there are immigrants in the U.S.
The Amish in IndianaIt is hard not to draw similarities between the Amish and newer immigrant groups.View archives