At our farm stand it occured to us that the american small farm is a dying breed, and the USDA agreed. Very small vegetable and fruit farms focus on the labor-intensive non-mechanized crops while larger farms undertake mechanized agriculture, encouraging US farms to both get larger and smaller in the future. Currently, 8% of all farms produce 87% of all the fruits and vegetables on very large acres, and 68% of farms produce 1% of all produce on less than 4 acres.
Mir Ali and Gary Lucier of the USDA ERS will report in their study, Vegetable Production Concentrated on Very Large Farms (Amber Waves , June 2011) that because an increase in the size of a vegetable and fruit farm of about 3 acres corresponds with an increase in production of nearly $250,000, vegetable and fruit production is encouraged to be on as many acres as possible.
Surprisingly, the improved economy of scale has less to do with the expanded land size than the very large value of the crops and their relative high profit margins. “For example, during 2007-09, the average per acre farm value of U.S. fresh-market field tomato production was $12,238, meaning that a farm with just 82 acres of fresh tomatoes could have farm sales in excess of $1 million. In contrast, about 1,500 acres of sweet corn for processing would be required to reach $1 million in sales,” say the doctors in their study. This means that commodity crops are encouraged to large acreages by economy of scale, but fruit and vegetable production is encouraged by different pressures to become larger.
Which explains why there is also downward pressure towards smaller farms too: there is an economy of decreasing and also increasing scale. There is a very large number (68% of the entire farmer population) of small farms (less than 4 acres) which are satisfied by average incomes of less than $40,000 because they have fewer costs of machinery, labor and other expenses: very small farms can undertake the labor by hand because those productions have not yet been mechanized and large farms have to also undertake the labor by hand.