In just a few decades, agriculture has changed in vast ways due to technology and industry. Increasingly large farming operations have cropped up across the country, dwarfing what had once been considered average-sized operations and making them look small in comparison.
According to the Farm Service Agency, the definition of a small farm is a family-owned operation that brings in a gross cash income of less than $350,000. This is a definition several local farms fall under.
It has been trending this way since the 1940s, according to Geary County Extension Agent Chuck Otte, with big farms growing bigger and small farms are growing smaller.
The middle ground, he said, is shrinking as it has become harder to make a living farming smaller sections of land.
In Geary County, he said, the majority of the ag production comes from larger operations — about 80 percent of the local crops are farmed by about 20 percent of local producers, Otte said.
In Geary County in 1982, Otte said, there were 12 dairies and more than 70 hog farms.
This has been reduced to one dairy and one large hog producer with a few smaller operations raising hogs. Otte believes this trend will continue with other livestock such as cattle and chickens and with row crops such as corn and soy beans.
"Some people have this image of mom and dad out there with a few cows, few pigs, few chickens a garden and 80 acres of something,” Otte said. "And that really doesn't describe it today. Most small farms are part-time farmers.”
Agriculture is not the big money-maker it used to be. It has become, for smaller operations, something people do on evenings and weekends. Not quite a hobby, but not something they can afford to do full-time, either.
These days, farmers with smaller operations can’t pay their bills on their crops alone. Many of them take on other jobs to keep the lights on and farm on the evenings and weekends.
“There will always be small farms, because these people don’t rely on the farm for all their income,” Otte said. “Closer to larger, urban areas — closer to Topeka, to Lawrence to Wichita to Kansas City — you will see small acreage production of specialty crops — truck gardening where they’re producing vegetables. People want to see that in our area and they don’t understand the realities of it. It’s very labor intensive. You’ve got to make sure that you have a market for your produce and then be able to grow and sell produce at not much over when it's going to cost at local grocery stores.”
Such a small farm’s ability to make money depends on the local economy. If the average person can stretch their food dollar enough to afford produce at a farmers market or in a farm store, a small operation can make a living. However, this is easier said than done.
Locally produced fruits and vegetables bought straight from the producer tend to cost more than the food purchased in the grocery store, but people have the benefit of knowing who raised those items and how. But that’s often not the deciding factor in how families choose to spend their food budgets.
“Most food decisions on buying come down to cost, plain and simple,” Otte said.
If, however, someone says "I want to buy something from the person that picked it with their own hands, I can look them in the eye, that sort of thing,” he said, that could play a factor.
Locally grown food has become more desirable for more people, Otte said, but the market is still a hard row to hoe for many producers.
It’s still hard to compete, he said, with people who are raising hundreds or even thousands of acres of any one particular crop every year.
“The small farms aren't going to go away,” Otte said. "But we're going to see more and more of the production concentrated in fewer and fewer farmers hands. It's been happening for the past 60, years, 70 years, it's going to continue to do that."
Though he believes smaller operations will not vanish, they will "be producing less and less of what we eat” and the choices to eat local will grow fewer.
It’s not an optimistic stance, Otte admits, but it has been the trend since the end of World War II.
“There's always going to be that small farm for various and sundry reasons,” he said. "But the majority of the production is going to continue to be consolidated in fewer and fewer hands."
This could have a negative impact on consumers. If a small number of people were to end up with a monopoly on what people in the United States eat, Otte said, grocery prices could soar as those large producers could set the prices as they pleased.
Angela Beavers of the Geary County Conservation District agrees with this assessment.
“The danger of that is just like that of any other industry being in the hands of the very few,” she said. “You'll get to a point where you are at their mercy for production, what they produce, when they produce it, how they produce it, how much it costs.”
This spring, large meatpacking plants became COVID-19 hotspots and had to shut down around the country, causing meat shortages. This kind of ripple effect can hit consumers at the grocery store — and right in the wallet — if a large producer has a monopoly on a certain crop and something goes wrong with that crop. It can cause a major problem with the food supply, as people likely noticed this spring when grocery store shelves emptied of meat and other food products.
Beavers’ family owns a smaller operation in Geary County.
"it's getting very hard for small family operations,” she said. "Those small family operations are going to have to kind of find that niche and do maybe one or two things really well — maximize acres or animals that they have available. You know, just like with any other business, there's an economy of scale. And so you know, the guys that can afford to get bigger and can have the manpower to get bigger, are going to kick into that economy of scale and be able to be a little more efficient.”
It’s not that a small, family farm can’t survive, Beavers said, but it’s harder.
"It's just they're going to have have to be really efficient, really innovative, to come up with one specific thing — specific things that they can do really well, but not everybody else is trying to compete in,” Beavers said.
She echoed Otte’s point that farmers these days often need a steady stream of income from outside the farm.
“Farming, you know, your paydays — you don't get a payday every month,” Beavers said. "You might get them two or three times a year."
The family has a cow/calf operation on native pasture, she said, and grow “forage” for themselves and to sell. They grow crops such as soybeans, wheat, corn and occasionally oats, in addition to cover crops to protect the health of the soil and provide extra food for their cattle through the winter.
It has proven important to stay abreast of technology and keep their business plan current, Beavers said.
It also helps to take advantage of the resources available to farmers.
Resources exist, she said, through the Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service.
“There's programs that (producers) can go through and get government assistance,” Beavers said. "It takes a fair amount of research sometimes to find those resources and come up with those programs, but they are available."
She and her husband have recently entered into a partnership with two of their sons, who plan to keep farming their land even once their parents have retired, so the farm will go on.