By the numbers, how has farming changed since 'So God Made a Farmer'?
February 5th, 2013
10:15 AM ET
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Ryan Goodman is a generational rancher from Arkansas with a degree in Animal Science from Oklahoma State University. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at the University of Tennessee, studying beef cattle management. Goodman is one of many farmers using social media to bridge the gap between farmers and urban customers. Follow his story daily at or on Twitter and Facebook.

This week has been an exciting one for those discussing food and farming. Sunday's airing of RAM Truck's Super Bowl ad featuring the American farmer has had online communities buzzing about the images and characteristics that defined our farmers in 1978. Those traits and values still hold true today, despite what we often hear in mainstream media and reports from those who have a "beef" with modern farming.

Paul Harvey first recited "So God Made a Farmer" at the 1978 Future Farmers of America annual convention. A few things have changed in the three and a half decades since. My dad was in junior high (and still had a full head of hair). Since then, he has raised a few thousand cattle, has broken in a few new pickups, and harvested several crops of hay.

So how do things compare between 1978 and today?

Using the numbers from our most recent U.S. Agriculture Survey (2007, a new one is being conducted for 2012), here are some interesting comparisons:

In 1978, there were 2,257,775 farms, averaging 449 acres each. In 2007, those numbers reduced to 2,204,792 farms averaging 418 acres each. Farmers today are actually smaller by 31 acres.

Today the market value of farmland and buildings is $1,892 per acre. That is up from $619 per acre in 1978 - an increase of $1,273 per acre.

Today we have 922,095,840 acres of farmland in the United States. In 1978, that number was 1,014,777,234 - a decrease of 92,681,394 acres.

In 1978, 56% of farmers claimed farming as their primary occupation and 44% of farmers claimed zero days away from the farm work.

Today, 45% of farmers claim farming as their primary occupation and 35.3% of farmers claim zero days away from the farm work.

Our average farmers have aged almost 7 years since 1978. Today the average farmer is 57.1 years old.

The numbers have changed, and so has much of the technology farmers use to produce much more food on much fewer acres, but the person remains the same. The characteristics, values, hard work, determination, and grit it takes to work day in and out, producing food for a global food supply, still holds true 35 years after the late Paul Harvey first made his description.

Recently, farmers and ranchers may not have been in the most positive spotlight, but I hope we all take this opportunity to ruminate on the things food producers are doing right and carry on the conversation on how we can continue to improve.

Got a question for our panel of farmers? Please share it in the comments below and we'll do our best to get some answers.

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  6. Frank

    A subsidy a day makes America that much poorer.
    Go on with your 70% of crops the government buys, while farmers say they don't care if there's a market, they're getting paid. The commercial just reminded me that subsidies are up for debate again, and they're flush with money to spend on ads.

    February 6, 2013 at 1:00 am |
    • Crystal

      Frank, please keep in mind that the commercial was paid for by Dodge, not farmers. Your comments regarding subsidies are invalid. When you consider the amount of people who don't work (and choose not to) and are on some sort of government aid (food stamps, welfare, healthcare, etc.), agricultural subsidies are the least of our problems.

      P.S. – Did you eat today? Thank a farmer.

      February 6, 2013 at 9:29 am |
  7. Barney Barrett

    Just wondering what are statistics of percentage of farmers who inherited there farms? Not to say they don't work hard .regardless of how they got in the business. But it seems like every farmer I've met inherited from there folks.

    February 5, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
    • Ryan Goodman

      Good question Barney. Table 65 in the 2007 Ag Census data gives information on farm Operator demographics and ownership. I know that most families would love to pass the farm on to future generations. Many have some type of plan in place, but there are many obstacles in the way (including estate and death taxes, and I'm sure many legal parameters that I'm not as familiar with).

      February 6, 2013 at 7:06 am |
    • ninime

      My parents BOUGHT their farm from my grandparents. It was not inherited.

      February 18, 2013 at 7:04 am |
  8. Rachel

    This article doesn't mention the change in demographics of farmworkers, whom nowadays are mostly Hispanic. They deserve to be recognized.
    – Someone who worked with migrant farmworkers on the East Coast, doing prenatal health education

    February 5, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • Ryan Goodman

      Correct, it doesn't mention many parameters, demographics, or statistics recorded in the Ag Census results. The farming community is made of a very diverse group, more so today than it has been before. You can look up more of that information on the Ag Census link included in the article.

      February 6, 2013 at 6:55 am |
  9. Pat

    I see a lot of comments after CNN articles and besides the obvious jokes, the discussion can help me better understand the issue that was discusses. However, it rare that you see the author of the article respond and answer the comments and questions that are made. This was really interesting to see and it makes the article more valuable and informative. Ryan, I applaud you for that. Thanks.

    February 5, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
    • Brian

      Ryan does a great job at "agvocating." I've been lucky enough to hear him speak as well as share a meal and a few drinks. Ryan is a great guy through and through. I do some blogging/social media myself about my farm and agricultural issues. I've got a few things on this site! I think the comments are at least as important if not more important than the articles themselves.

      February 5, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
    • Ryan Goodman

      Thank you Pat. I do what I can to answer questions. I carry a lot of them later onto my personal blog as well.

      February 6, 2013 at 6:52 am |
  10. VEW2012

    The problem is they consider it a farm if the annual income is over $1000. In what world can anyone say a farm is supporting them if the income is only $1000 per year...that wouldn't pay the taxes, or buy a set of tires for the tractor. In some Ohio counties the average size farm is 25 acres....meanig there are a whole lot of farms that are smaller than that.

    February 5, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
    • Brian

      I've seen that $1000 dollar figure too. I'm not sure what the reasoning is behind that, nor would I know where a good place is to starting defining a farm. That puts me in the top 6% of all US farms based on annual sales. That being said there are all different types of farms and sizes. We grow corn, soybeans, popcorn, and wheat on just over 2000 acres in Indiana. I have relatives who make a living on 20 acres in Hawaii growing lettuce, romaine, and onions. Of course they have a harvest every week!

      February 5, 2013 at 8:42 pm |
  11. Kim D

    I would like to know where to find good farm ground for $1892/acre. Where I live this is bottom dollar for crap ground. Anyways, thank you Dodge Trucks for recognizing us hard working Americans who provide for the world. Farming is not only a way of life, but also a true passion. I wouldn't trade my way of life for all of the money in the world.

    February 5, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
    • Mike Anderson

      Land in central Wisconsin, deep in dairy country, runs around 2000/acre for cropland. You can't get two crops a year, but we can sometimes get four cuttings of hay. Thanks, Dodge!

      February 5, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
  12. WillyNilly

    In my area I have watched as the city spreads onto productive farm land like a cancer. Everyone in town wants to stake out a couple of acres for a large home and lawn that produces nothing but takes up an incredible amount of resources. Farmers have to become more productive because the amount of production land is being eroded yearly. On the other side are the huge farmers who buy up, lease, rent as much land as possible, even crossing state lines to increase their farmed acreage. They often have little care of anything beyond the bottom line. Farms and farmers are certainly not the same as I remember.

    February 5, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
    • Ryan Goodman

      Thanks for bringing it up. I was just discussing it with someone today. Of course farming is going to be different than it was in the past if we don't have the acreage we once did.

      "They often have little care of anything beyond the bottom line" – Wouldn't be so sure of that assumption if it were me. If "they" didn't care, they wouldn't be on the land.

      February 5, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
  13. Mark Firminger

    I too was surprised at the decline in farm size. What might really tell the story is how much money from the gross farm sales stays in the hands of the family farm (real profit) vs the amount going to pay for cost of production (wages, repairs, machinery bought, fuel, feed, bank interest etc. and the list is long). Low farm prices for commodities indicates a surplus of food on the planet if you can believe it.

    February 5, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
    • Ryan Goodman

      Agreed. I'm not a business owner, so I have less perspective on this than what many farmers will have. There's definitely a lot of overhead in business these days and input prices aren't getting any lower. (Farmers pay the same food price at grocery stores too.) The profit margins aren't very good. In the cattle business, those have been negative at the end of the line for many folks recently. In many cases, it's a lot of risk, for just a handful of profit.

      February 5, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
    • Brian

      I wonder if the decline in size has anything to do with the proliferation of urban farms and the like. Now you can't get a lot of grain out of those situations but you can get a great deal of fruits and vegetables. Certainly grain farms like mine have consolidated, but I think small farms have increased. My costs are high, but I do make a living. I can't complain much. I literally have a wife, a kid, a dog, and a house with a white picket fence around it.

      February 5, 2013 at 8:46 pm |
  14. B Woolf

    What would be helpful is to understand the productivity change from '78 – '07. My assumption is that technology and better farming methods have increased yields.

    February 5, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
    • Ryan Goodman

      That most definitely would help to include the productivity and marketing formation for perspective. However, this would be a pretty lengthy discussion if one were to include all of those aspects. Here's a link to the '07 Ag Census data if you'd like to have a look at that. The historical comparison is on the first few tables.,_Chapter_1_US/

      February 5, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
  15. Karl

    "Farmers today are actually smaller by 31 acres."

    Somehow, I doubt any farmer was ever THAT obese in the first place.

    February 5, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
    • Ryan Goodman

      Haha, Good catch Karl. Obviously, that should be "farms"

      February 5, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
  16. Holly Spangler

    I agree, the farm numbers are surprising in that they aren't more different from '78 to '12. Granted, the debate on how to define a farm has raged for many years, and – like everything else – has likely changed since '78. I, too, am shocked regarding the loss of farmland, and yet, having covered the 1031 exchange flurry of the late '90s/early '00s, I shouldn't be. A lot of the best farmland in the entire world has been paved over, forever to be known as suburbs and collar counties by folks wanting a piece of the "country" life. I can't blame them but I regret the loss to agriculture.

    February 5, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
    • Ryan Goodman

      It's definitely hard to grasp. I keep looking at the numbers, wishing I was wrong with my calculations from the census data.

      February 5, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
    • Brian

      We always talk about land giving way to urban sprawl, but I read an article recently that claimed worldwide ag acres are up. Of course that means more land is being cleared for farming. That could be good or bad I guess.

      February 5, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
  17. LBrislen

    It does not help our efforts to support family farmers if we ignore the fact that Agriculture of the Middle is being squeezed out by large consolidated operations. Citing average farm size is a very inaccurate picture of the American agricultural landscape. We need to have honest conversations about who wins and who looses in modern agricultural markets and policy, and too often it is NOT the family farmer. From a USDA report "Growing farm size and the distribution of farm payments": "A more striking shift is toward very large family farms (sales of at least $500,000, in 2003 dollars), which accounted for nearly half (45 percent) of production in 2003, up from 32 percent in 1989. The number of those very large family farms also grew—from 39,700 in 1989 to 66,700 in 2003. Meanwhile, the share of production on smaller family farms ($10,000-$250,000 in sales) fell from 40 percent in 1989 to 26 percent in 2003."

    February 5, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • Ryan Goodman

      Is Agriculture the only industry where the middle is progressing more toward a larger and smaller extreme? Not an excuse or challenge, just a curiosity.

      I think the number of small farms and their production may increase with the 2012 numbers.

      February 5, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
    • corn belt farmer

      I don't think the mid-sized farmers were "squeezed" out by the farmers who grew. I think they were squeezed out when the profit margins became so narrow that they either had to grow larger in order to make a living, or choose another occupation. Growing involved tremendous investment risks including purchases of larger machinery, hiring more help, and spending more on input costs. Many smaller farmers could not take this risk and chose to rent or sell their land to the ones who opted to expand. It did not involve any big corporate take-overs....just common economics. The U of IL has excellent data about the input costs and profit margins of corn and soybean production.

      February 6, 2013 at 10:10 am |
      • mslilyb

        It depends on how we understand the 'squeeze'. I don't mean to indicate that the large consolidated operations are intentionally cannibalizing their neighbors operations (though if you live in corn country, I'm sure you know the consequences that fierce competition for land has had on farming communities). Your description of the economies of scale related to large scale commodity production are spot on. However, the markets and production environment in which American commodity producers exist are not free, unfettered, and perfectly transparent. We've created a farm economy where the Family Farm that most folks envision simply cannot survive, and that has real and significant impacts on our rural communities, our food system, and the ability of our young farmers to continue in the field (literally). How long can we sustain Earl Butz's dellusion that 'get big or get out' is a reasonable vision for the future of agriculture?

        February 11, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
        • corn belt farmer

          Yes, I live in corn country, and I understand the squeeze. I have a son who has come home to farm, and due to fierce competition for land, has only been able to rent 13 acres on his own.I also agree that our farming operation is not free and unfettered, although I disagree with the "not transparent" part. My husband and I both grew up farming. My husband's dad died when he was in high school. When we married, we were probably considered to be a family farm. However, more relatives and neighbors died and we acquired more ground to rent. We increased in size, but did not increase in machinery and labor until much later. Therefore, we spent many years working our tails off with small machinery and lots of man hours until we could afford to expand. We were still considered to be a family farm. However, when we discovered that we were paying way too much in self-employment taxes, we incorporated. Unfortunately, that seemed to put us in the category of "factory farming."

          You're right in that the American vision of the farmer cannot least in grain farming. Why do people in modern society expect that farmers should still be their visions from their childhood?. We use computers too, as well as global technology. The global technology goes a long way toward reducing any unwanted effects of farming on the environment. Our GPS systems help us control chemical and fertilizer applications based on need. However, People seem to still want my husband and I to stand together with a pitchfork.

          However, in response to your statement, look up what it takes for input as a farmer, (maybe at University of ILlinois), and tell me why I am such a bad person.

          February 12, 2013 at 12:12 am |
  18. Brian

    Great article, Ryan. I'm most struck by the number of farms. I would've thought the current number would be much lower. I supposed it all depends of the definition of a farm. I know there are some figures that define a farm beginning at $1000 in sales per year. That puts my farm in the top 6% of all US farms, and I don't feel that big!

    February 5, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • Ryan Goodman

      Agreed Brian, that number probably does include many small, secondary-income farms. It will be interesting to see how much that demographic grows when thhe numbers for 2012 are released.

      February 5, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
      • Brian

        Yes it will. Do recall when those numbers will be out? I was thinking I read it would be fairly soon.

        February 5, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
        • Ryan Goodman

          Ag Census forms were due yesterday. The USDA-NASS doesn't list when the results will be available.

          February 5, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
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