Jesse Newman and
Jacob Bunge |
Graphics by Angela Calderon
The corn harvest in Colby, Kan., in October.Photo: Nick Cote for The Wall Street Journal
The American farm has been transformed. During the first half of the 20th century, farmers raised a mix of crops and livestock on a few hundred acres of land. These days, most farmers specialize in a few, or even just one product, on much bigger spreads. That focus has helped farmers reap bigger profits, but it also can leave them exposed—a swing in one commodity’s price, a blight or bad weather can be devastating.
In 1900 nearly all farms had animals. By the turn of the 21st century, fewer than 10% of farms had milk cows, hogs or chickens, even as the U.S. produced more meat than ever. Grain production also shifted to a smaller number of farms. By 2010, just one in six farmers raised corn.
Without animals to tend, crop farmers had more time and capital to invest in equipment, allowing them to manage more land.
Technological advances, such as computerized irrigation and synthetic herbicides, also have spurred bigger farms. By the mid-1950s, tractors outnumbered working horses and mules on U.S. farms, enabling farmers to cover more ground. Adopting new technologies also reduces farmers’ need for human workers.
Hybrid corn strains, which can produce more and more bushels per acre, have been widely used since the World War II era. Around that time, geneticists also started developing breeds of chicken that produce more meat—a novelty for many Americans who more commonly ate beef or pork.
Geographic advantages fostered specialization. Rich, black soil in the Midwest was best for corn and soybeans, while southern states’ warmer winters made it possible to raise multiple flocks of poultry year-round. Over time, Iowa became the No. 1 U.S. corn producer while Georgia emerged as the leader in chicken.
Farms have been joined together to make bigger operations, especially in the Midwest and Great Plains, where flat, neighboring acres allowed farmers to drive big tractors over swaths of uninterrupted territory.
Following legislation passed in 2005, the U.S. has required refineries to blend corn-based ethanol into the fuel supply, boosting demand for that crop, while cheap, abundant wheat from Russia and Ukraine has hastened wheat’s decline in the U.S.
More than half of the nation’s farms are specialized.
Production and efficiency can rise with specialization, which has helped make farms profitable despite declining prices for some commodities.
But less diversity carries risks, leaving producers more exposed to price swings in particular markets.
The multiyear slump in prices for corn, wheat and other commodities is pushing many farmers into debt, sparking concerns the U.S. could see the biggest wave of farm closures since the 1980s. Many Midwestern grain farmers have looked for ways to again diversify, especially as younger generations return to farm. In Illinois and Iowa, some are again raising hogs or cattle in addition to crops, state agriculture and farm group officials say.