Dec 1, 2015
50 years later: Number of farms has dwindled, yields have increased

According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, there were 131,653 U.S. farms growing vegetables (excluding “Irish” potatoes and sweet potatoes) on about 3.3 million acres in 1964. Forty-eight years later, there were 72,045 farms growing vegetables (including potatoes and sweet potatoes) on about 4.5 million acres. Subtracting potatoes and sweet potatoes (about 1.3 million acres) from the 2012 total, it’s clear that the number of vegetable growers fell precipitously in the last five decades, while vegetable acreage stayed roughly the same.

Greg Boese, 68, who’s been running Cass River Farms in Saginaw, Michigan, for decades, first with his father and now with his son, has witnessed the consolidation of the vegetable industry firsthand. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, food companies like Vlasic had fieldmen “all over the place,” visiting the small family farms in his area, inspecting crops and scheduling deliveries. The growers, usually driving pickup trucks, would deliver small loads of pickles and peppers to receiving stations, where the companies would gather what they needed for the year.

Today, the few remaining growers – much bigger than they used to be – deliver loads of produce by the semi-truck to the few remaining processors, who are also much bigger than they used to be. Those processors eliminated their field departments over the years, and farms like Boese’s had to take over much of those duties themselves. Cass River Farms now grows 600 acres of banana and jalapeno peppers, and contracts 1,200 acres from other growers. All the peppers are now shipped to Cass River’s pre-processing facility in Saginaw, where they’re cleaned before being shipped to processors, he said.

Some Michigan pickle growers today farm up to 3,000 acres – an unheard-of size a few decades ago. At such a scale, the costs are too prohibitive for new growers to break in. They can’t start small anymore and slowly expand, Boese said.

“We have a dozen pepper growers,” he said. “We hate to lose one, because we can never get a new one. When they quit, that’s it.”

Baldwin Farms in Stockbridge, Michigan, didn’t survive the consolidation trend. Gary Baldwin, 65, quit farming a few years ago, “before I lost everything.” He said it was a combination of extreme weather, competition from federally subsidized growers and the economy tanking in 2008 that finally did him in. Gary was a third-generation farmer, growing mostly onions. His father, Duane Baldwin, was the first president of the Michigan Vegetable Council (MVC).

“Old family farms have gone in different directions over the years,” Gary said. “There’s only one onion farmer left in the Stockbridge area. When I grew up, there was probably 100 around here.”

More with less

While the number of U.S. vegetable farms has declined and overall acreage has held steady, value and yields have increased. In 1964, U.S. vegetables were worth just under $1 billion, according to the census. According to USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), cash receipts from the sale of vegetables and pulses (including potatoes) averaged $17.4 billion during the first eight years of the 2000s. That value represented 14 percent of all U.S. crop cash receipts in the same period, even though the vegetables were generated on less than 2 percent of total U.S. harvested farmland.

Yields have been rising, too. Several factors have contributed to this, including a long-term shift from less productive areas in the East to more productive areas in the West, as well as the adoption of precision farming techniques such as drip irrigation, plastic mulches, row covers, high tunnels, more effective pesticide sprays, high-density planting and the use of global positioning systems. The major factor, however, has been the introduction of more prolific hybrid varieties, many of which exhibit improved disease resistance and increased fruit set, according to ERS.

Boese said varieties today are “unbelievable,” getting yields you could never have dreamed of 50 years ago. Breeding for pest and disease resistance also has made things easier. As a pepper grower, Boese’s biggest pest problem has been corn borer. Genetically modified corn has virtually eliminated corn borer in his area, however. He used to have to spray for it every five days, but no longer.

“Yields have gotten a lot better,” Boese said, but “I don’t know that the margin of profit has gotten any better.”

According to ERS, the rise in production coincides with a rise in consumption. Americans were eating more fruits and vegetables in 2006 than they were in 1986. Demand shifted substantially over those two decades as incomes rose, immigration increased and consumer tastes and preferences changed. The desire for convenience – in the form of value-added and time-saving products such as bagged salads, salad kits, pre-cut wrapped/packaged items, microwave-ready packs, broccoli florets, etc. – led to a surge in vegetable sales.

Consumers also have shown a preference for more flavorful and better-looking products, and the produce industry has responded with improved varieties, according to ERS.

Boese has seen tremendous growth in the usage of banana peppers and jalapeno peppers, neither of which were a big deal 50 years ago. People didn’t eat much Mexican food back then, or as much hot food – but they do now, he said.

The rising demand for vegetables – as well as the negotiation of bilateral trade agreements in the last couple of decades – also has led to an increase in imports. As a share of consumption of fresh-market vegetables and melons, imports increased from 10 percent in 1992-94 to 16 percent in 2002-04. On the other hand, U.S. produce exports face obstacles that limit a similar increase, including high tariffs and non-tariff barriers in other countries, according to ERS.

Communication

Barb Radewald, 83, remembers when communication was face to face, in the days before computers or cellphones. She helped run Radewald Farms in Niles, Michigan, with her husband, Stanley, his brother Edwin and Edwin’s wife, Virginia. Stanley was president of MVC in 1969; Barb was president in 1982-83. She sold her share of the farm in 2005, after Stanley died.

For a long time, Barb was in charge of the packinghouse. Early on, she did a lot of farm marketing and drove the farm’s product to various stores. Back then, you “went to stores to talk to them about being your customers, or they would come to your farms when you were picking your crops,” she said. “Now, you don’t really talk to a person face to face. You get a lot of good out of seeing a person. It’s different than talking on the phone.”

Technology definitely has changed the way farmers do business, Boese said.

“If my grandfather came back today, he wouldn’t think he came back to the same place,” he said. “We walk around with telephones in our pockets. Tractors steer themselves and go straight across the field. It’s gotten a lot easier physically, but maybe not mentally.”

Matt Milkovich





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