From 1950 to 1980, United States farm output doubled. At the same time, the number of farms fell from over 5 million to approximately 2 million, averaging 400+ acres in size and covering a total of nearly a billion acres. The farm population shrank from 23 million to 6 million (from 15% to 2.7% of the population). The number of persons supplied with farm products grew from 15 to 65 for each farm worker. The estimated market value of land and buildings on an average farm is over $500,000 or over $1200 per acre. Equipment is valued at nearly $70,000 per farm. Averages are somewhat misleading since 1.8 million of the 2 million farms in the United States are less than 500 acres. The market value of agricultural products sold in 2002 was more than $2 billion, or almost $100,000 per farm. Again, averages are misleading since the top 15% of farms, in terms of size, produced almost 80% of the gross farm income.
The 2002 Census of Agriculture by the United States Department of Agriculture found a slight decline in the total number of farms, but a much more significant loss (18%) in the number of corporate farms (74,000 from 90,000), reversing a trend of increasing corporate ownership of farms that began in the 1970s (nearly doubling between 1978 and 1997). Sixty percent of principal operators of U.S. farms have farming as their primary occupation, so 40% of farm operators have jobs off the farm that they consider their primary employment. The average age of principal farm or ranch operators was 55.3 years compared to 54 years in 1997, which continues a 25-year trend of aging among American farmers. The typical family farm today is a commercialized and specialized business, concentrating on one or two commercial crops. It utilizes machinery to the greatest extent possible on large fields and usually depends on borrowed capital to purchase equipment, seed and feed, fertilizer, pesticides, and veterinary treatments and services to maximize yields. In an environment such as this, much more than just farming skills are needed to be successful (2).
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