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Farming As Big Business

Farming As Big Business

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American farmers approached the 21st century with some of the same problems they encountered during the 20th century. The most important of these continued to be overproduction. As has been true since the nation's founding, continuing improvements in farm machinery, better seeds, better fertilizers, more irrigation, and effective pest control have made farmers more and more successful in what they do (except for making money). And while farmers generally have favored holding down overall crop output to shore up prices, they have balked at cutting their own production.

Just as an industrial enterprise might seek to boost profits by becoming bigger and more efficient, many American farms have gotten larger and larger and have consolidated their operations to become leaner as well. In fact, American agriculture increasingly has become an "agribusiness," a term created to reflect the big, corporate nature of many farm enterprises in the modern U.S. economy. Agribusiness includes a variety of farm businesses and structures, from small, one-family corporations to huge conglomerates or multinational firms that own large tracts of land or that produce goods and materials used by farmers.

The advent of agribusiness in the late 20th century has meant fewer but much larger farms. Sometimes owned by absentee stockholders, these corporate farms use more machinery and far fewer farm hands. In 1940, there were 6 million farms averaging 67 hectares each. By the late 1990s, there were only about 2.2 million farms averaging 190 hectares in size. During roughly this same period, farm employment declined dramatically -- from 12.5 million in 1930 to 1.2 million in the 1990s -- even as the total U.S. population more than doubled. In 1900, half of the labor force were farmers, but by the end of the century only 2 percent worked on farms. And nearly 60 percent of the remaining farmers at the end of the century worked only part-time on farms; they held other, non-farm jobs to supplement their farm income. The high cost of capital investment -- in land and equipment -- makes entry into full-time farming extremely difficult for most persons.

As these numbers demonstrate, the American "family farm" -- rooted firmly in the nation's history and celebrated in the myth of the sturdy yeoman -- faces powerful economic challenges. Urban and suburban Americans continue to rhapsodize about the neat barns and cultivated fields of the traditional rural landscape, but it remains uncertain whether they will be willing to pay the price -- either in higher food prices or government subsidies to farmers -- of preserving the family farm.

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This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.

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