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Small local farms get right-sized iron

There’s an unusual dynamic going on with American farms. The number of small farms is growing rapidly, the number of large farms is stable, and the number of medium-sized farms is declining.

According to Manuel Jimenez, an astonishing 86% of the farms in the country are small farms, meaning they have less than $250,000 in annual sales. This “resurgence” is deceiving, however; these farms produce only about 15% of the nation’s crop value.

“The small farms in California produce about 10% of crop value,” said Jimenez, a University of California Cooperative Extension specialist in Tulare County and an adviser in the UC Small Farm Program. He was speaking at the Italian Farm Machinery Convention in Laguna Niguel, where the focus was on the impact of farm size on equipment dealers and distributors.

Key Points

• 86% of U.S. farms are small, with less than $250,000 in annual sales.

• American makers are coming up with lines of small-sized equipment.

• The small-farm movement, which is global, stresses low-cost equipment.

Small farm trend

Furthermore, Jimenez said the number of small farms will continue to increase and the number of medium-sized farms will continue to decrease. That’s because there is an active back-to-the-land and buy-local movement.

George Russell, an executive partner at Currie Management Consultants, noted that global demand and the natural aggressiveness of the family farmer also contribute to the tendency of a small or medium-sized farm to grow. These are often good business people who know how to invest their time and money in the ag sector. California and Arizona are the poster states for these trends.

The small farmers, or “rural lifestylers,” as Russell called many of them, are riding a national trend that has to do with land use. Many of the new small farms are established near major metropolitan areas where there are solid local markets for their produce. One of the leading segments of the small farm movement is the female farmer.

“Million-dollar farms’ share of sales, however, increased from 23% in 1982 to 60% in 2007,” Russell said.

High-value crops push trend

The type of farm has a lot to do with this trend, said Russell, whose company consults with equipment makers and distributors. Many small farmers are engaged in high-value fruit and vegetable production, and the message for equipment manufacturers is obvious. There’s a market for small, inexpensive machinery.

“Competition in these areas is getting fierce,” Russell said. American manufacturers are coming up with lines of small-sized equipment, as John Deere is doing with its Frontier line and Case New Holland is doing with its Work EZ line. In addition, foreign manufacturers such as Mahindra from India and McCormick from Italy are marketing heavily in the U.S. and globally. There’s a lot of development of small tractors and implements aimed at these innovative growers.

Dale is an Altadena writer.

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SPECIAL NEEDS: There’s a lot of development of small tractors and implements aimed at innovative small growers. These small farmers continue to be a stable group, but they have special equipment needs when growing their diversified vegetable crops.

This article published in the February, 2010 edition of CALIFORNIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.