Big Farms, Bad Rap

The Environmental and Human Upside of Farm Consolidation

Farm consolidation has been having a moment.

Trump’s trade war, some observers suggest, will ultimately benefit the largest farms. At the same time, most of the Democratic presidential candidates are proposing policies that they claim will help small farmers who are suffering at the hands of “big ag.” Farm consolidation, in these accounts, is an unalloyed social and environmental ill.

Yet, while there are environmental and economic impacts associated with agricultural consolidation, particularly in the agribusiness and meat-processing industries, larger farms are in many ways conducive to better environmental outcomes and labor conditions than their mid-sized counterparts.

Farm consolidation is nothing new. US agriculture has been consolidating for more than a century. Small farms disappeared as much of the nation’s population left rural America for opportunities in manufacturing and service economies near urban centers. Subsequently, the number of farms in the United States has fallen by 70 percent since 1935.

More recently, the number of small farms has actually grown. But these farms are responsible for a vanishingly small share of America’s total agricultural output. What has changed in recent decades is actually the disappearance of mid-sized farms as historically large farms consolidate into even larger ones. This trend is at odds with a discourse that casts small family farms as the victims of industrial behemoths. If there is a major economic conflict between the interests of farmers and big agribusiness, it is a conflict between larger farmers and very large agricultural processors like Cargill, ADM, and Tyson Foods.

Further, the long history of ag consolidation has actually corresponded with increasing farm productivity and environmental efficiency. Higher productivity, driven by technology adoption, remains the primary environmental benefit of farm consolidation. In the United States, yields are higher and have grown faster on large farms. And it is thanks to such yield growth that the worldwide agricultural land use per person is roughly half what it was in 1960, which has massively reduced carbon emissions and habitat loss compared to a flat-yield scenario.

Looking forward, the environmental advantage of larger farms may well grow as they are quicker to adopt cutting-edge agricultural technology. A 2016 USDA ERS report found that adoption rates for three precision agriculture (PA) technologies — GPS soil/yield mapping, guidance systems, and variable-rate technology (VRT) — were highest on farms over 3,800 acres. In addition to boosting productivity, PA technology has the potential to dramatically improve input efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from crop farming.

Higher productivity, driven by technology adoption, remains the primary environmental benefit of farm consolidation.

While small farms are capable of implementing PA technologies, there is likely a feedback loop between farm size and tech adoption. Larger farms have more capital to invest in new technologies, which in turn boost profits and allow for further technological investment. Also, because PA equipment is highly specialized and difficult to resell, adoption poses a high financial risk that smaller farmers might be unwilling or unable to take.

The relationship between labor conditions and farm size is less clear cut, but still suggestive of an advantage for larger farms. Unfortunately, labor conditions for farmworkers are poor across the board, whether on a large, small, conventional, or organic farm. The average farmworker has low pay, receives few benefits, and faces high rates of sexual harassment and assault. Exacerbating these issues, farmworkers have less bargaining power than employees in many other industries, in part because about half of farmworkers are undocumented.

But while poor conditions are ubiquitous, they may be marginally better and easier to improve on large farms. Large farms are more likely to have their labor conditions audited by the government, and the Affordable Care Act requires employers with more than 50 full-time employees to offer affordable coverage to employees working 30 or more hours per week. Even as of 2009, California farms with more than 25 employees were twice as likely to provide insurance to year-round works as farms with five employees or fewer. Lastly, some farmworkers claim to prefer working on larger farms because they are more likely to provide full-time work and longer gigs.

Of course, the “get big or get out” approach to American agriculture — immortalized by Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s USDA secretary — has had real social and economic costs for farmers. Consolidation represents the loss of farmers’ livelihoods and the hollowing out of rural America. Still, if we value keeping food prices cheap, combating climate change, and protecting farm laborers, it's important to at least be honest about the real benefits of farm consolidation.