Missouri’s small farms face steep decline amidst economic challenges and a changing agricultural landscape.

Farming is in my blood. It’s a part of my life so far back that I don’t remember not being a farmer. I’m a cattle farmer, my dad is a cattle farmer, and his dad was a cattle farmer. When you do something your entire life, it becomes a part of who you are. The family farm is a cornerstone of American life and has been for generations.

In recent years, family farms have become more rare. In the 19th century, around 90% of the U.S. population lived on farms, and the average farmer produced enough food to feed five people. Today, less than 2% of Americans live on farms and ranches, and that percentage is still dropping according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. The average age of an American farmer has also changed; it is currently 57 according to the most recent data reported from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1978, the average age was 50.

So, why is this happening? The reasons are varied. Young people have been increasingly less likely to take over their family farms. One of the reasons cited is the difficulty of rural life. It’s considered easier and more convenient to live in an urban or suburban area, and people are choosing to stay on the farm less and less. Consolidation is also cited as a reason for fewer farms. Bigger farms buy smaller farms; therefore, there are fewer and fewer smaller farms. Another reason given is the barrier to entry for someone who does not inherit a farm. The cost of land, equipment, and supplies is much greater than the profit margins that small farms generate. That margin makes it unattainable for most people to start from scratch to become a farmer.

That doesn’t mean that family farms are completely vanishing, of course. The National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that 96% of all farms in the U.S. are family-owned, and 88% of all farms in this country are small farms that produce less than $350,000 a year in products. Those small family farms produce 45% of the farm products sold directly to consumers. Small family farms are still kicking.

New challenges that threaten our farms have arisen, however. One of those is competition for land. New industries that utilize large swaths of land are competing with farms for the same space. A good example of this is the clean power industry. This has become more of an issue in Missouri over the last few years. Large private power companies have begun buying up farmland, in one case being allowed to use the power of eminent domain to take farmland for transmission lines. In my opinion, that was not only a detriment to small farms, it was a case of government overreach. I feel it is vital that we protect these farms, and I have filed legislation to prevent it from happening to more family farms.

A new challenge is also coming in the form of solar plants. While I do think solar panels are a good source of clean energy, the amount of space necessary to house a solar plant requires it be located on large tracts of open ground. One of the best places for that, especially in this area, is farmland. At first glance, it seems that it shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but you have to factor in the cost to communities when a farm is converted to some other use. Food produced by that farm is no longer being sent to the local communities. Any industry that supports agriculture, like a feed store or veterinarian, loses a primary customer. The more advanced technology becomes, the fewer jobs are necessary. It takes a huge toll on rural, farm-based communities.

These are considerations we have to balance as we look toward the future of family farms. It’s something I think about every time we make decisions in the legislature that affect our farms and ranches. They are too important to our nation to be allowed to disappear. 

Sen. Mike Bernskoetter took office in 2019, serving the 6th Senatorial District. Before being elected to the Missouri Senate, he served as a representative for the 59th District in the Missouri House of Representatives.