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U.S. and EU, agricultural giants with fewer and fewer farmers

For all their differences, the United States and the European Union share a common experience — the abrupt decline in farm numbers, said the agriculture ministers of the agricultural powerhouses. The transformation of the agriculture sector, more recent in Europe than in the United States, resulted in a relatively small number of large farms that produce the majority of the food and many small farms with little revenue from crops and livestock.

The number of farms in Europe fell 37%, to 9.1 million, from 2005 to 2020. EU agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski said the losses were equal to 800 farms a day in recent years. “We have lost many family farms,” he said during an appearance with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at USDA’s Ag Outlook Forum on Friday.

For the United States, the consolidation into fewer and larger farms occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. There were 6.8 million farms in 1936; the number has hovered a bit above 2 million since the 1970s. The decline has been attributed to mechanization, introduction of hybrid crops, and adoption of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, all of which boosted productivity and reduced the need for labor.

“We assumed there was no other option,” said Vilsack. He said a focus on increased productivity led to neglect of issues such as profitability and preservation of resources for the long term. Both of the ministers said a vibrant farm sector was vital for rural economic health.

One way to expand revenue for farms of all sizes, said Vilsack, was to find new revenue streams, such as payments for carbon sequestration, development of markets for climate-smart commodities, growth of biofuel, and renewable fuel sales. The administration has put $3 billion into demonstration projects for climate-smart practices and markets.

“The farm bill will be part of that conversation,” said Vilsack.

“Stability for farmers, that is the problem,” said Wojciechowski. “I am very much in favor of the family farmer.” The new edition of the EU Common Agricultural Program gives farmers a central role in dealing with climate change, preserving rural landscapes and protecting food and health quality.

Wojciechowski and Vilsack launched a “collaboration platform on agriculture” in November 2021 to work on sustainability and climate change. “The European Union and the United States are committed globally to enhanced and sustainable production, alleviating poverty and hunger, protecting our environment, and confronting climate change” they said in a joint statement.

Two-thirds of EU farms are less than 5 hectares (13 acres), said a 2022 EU report, but 299,000 farms, mostly in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, accounted for 56% of agricultural production. “The vast majority of the EU’s farms are family farms,” meaning family members performed at least 50% of the labor.

Half of U.S. farms produce less than $10,000 a year in goods — too little to support a household — and an additional 30.8% generate less than $100,000 in sales. These smaller farms hold 30% of the 893 million acres of land in farms, said an annual USDA report. The largest 4% of farms, with more than $1 million in sales, operate nearly 26% of U.S. farmland.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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