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Sunday, March 15, 2009

South Dakota Gains Small Farms, Big Farms; Still Loses Farmers

Good news, bad news from KJAM: the number of farms increased in Lake County in 2007. Alas, that increase was one farm, up to 514 in 2007 from 513 in 2002. Still, an increase is an increase, and it beats the preceding 30 years, when we lost on average about 12 farms a year from our county.

The last five years have also seen a decrease in average farm size in Lake County: 613 acres in 2007, down from the historical high of 634 acres (not quite a full section) in 2002. All together, that's 87.45% of Lake County's land area used for farming, down from 90.26% in 2002. (We might need an update on those figures to account for marginal land put back into production for the ethanol boom.)

KJAM cites Trevor Brooks at SDSU Ag & Bio, who gives more statewide data from USDA's 2007 Census of Agriculture:
  • South Dakota gained "hobby" or "lifestyle" farms, those under 50 acres (So Flying Tomato, how's that "hobby" feel this morning?)
  • South Dakota also gained big corporate farms of 1000 acres or larger.
  • Those gains were still outdone by the loss of farms in between: overall, South Dakota lost 567 farms between 2002 and 2007.
  • Bright side of that 1.79% decline: it's the lowest decline in four decades.
  • Average farm size statewide: 1401 acres (two square miles and change), up from 1380 acres in 2002.
  • West River, 8 counties lost farms, 1 (Jones) stayed even, and 13 gained.
  • East River, 28 counties lost farms, while 15 gained.
Smaller farms in Lake County and elsewhere is a good sign. More people growing food on less land means more residents who feel a real connection to their community and to the natural resources that make that community possible.

And let's not forget the potential for economic development through small-scale agriculture: Lake County has lost over 300 farms since the 1970s. If we could attract 300 families to Lake County to start their own small farms, average 25 acres each, we could set them up on 7500 acres. That would be a 58% increase in the number of farmers in Lake County (and a possible 8% increase in population) on just 2.4% of the land currently in production.

It's not hard to imagine what Les Bulick over at Campbell's Supply would think of 300 more families coming in to buy shovels, fencing, and Carhartts. Maybe the LAIC needs to add a small-ag component to its economic development strategy. After all, big factories come and go (and go, and go), but people always need to eat.

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