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Over a decade, large Iowa farms grew while small farms shrank, according to ISU report

Kate Payne
IPR file
Iowa farm size has changed between 2011-2021, according to a report from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. The number of large commercial farms has doubled in that time period, while the number of small farms dropped by 27%.

Large-scale commercial farming operations have grown in Iowa over the past decade while small Iowa farms shrank, according to a new report from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

The report, Rural Iowa at a Glance, Farm Trends (2022 Edition), says nearly 70% of Iowa’s just under 83,000 farm operations are places to live or retire and are operated by people who have a job off the farm or are retirees. But more than 18,400 commercial farms operate nearly 70% of Iowa’s farmland. From 2011 to 2021, the number of acres operated by large commercial farms expanded to about 1,930 acres per farm, growing by 75%.

“Stuck in the middle are the small farms that are declining,” said Iowa State University rural sociology professor David Peters, who prepared the report using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “They can't become big, large commercial farms. And yet, they're not really at the point where they want to take a job off-farm.”

Small farms saw a rapid decline, as the amount of farmland they operated shrank to 311 acres per farm, a 47% reduction. The number of small farms fell to 7,880, a 27% drop from 2011 to 2021.

Peters said large farms have the money to invest in technologies to increase their yields, while many small farms don’t. And as large farms put more corn and soybeans on the market, prices drop and small farms can’t keep up.

“As the treadmill speeds up, the small farmers aren’t able to run as fast and eventually they fall behind and fall off the treadmill,” Peters said. “And they go out of business.”

The loss of small farms is concerning, Peters said, because it makes it harder for young and beginning farmers to break into farming. It also causes a loss in diversity of foods, since many small farms produce specialty crops, such as fruits. A third consequence, Peters said, is if there are fewer people in agriculture and fewer children growing up with a connection to agriculture, “we lose that agricultural heritage of our state.”

“Even if [small farms] don’t generate a lot in terms of production value or don’t really contribute to the farm economy in the state overall,” Peters said, “they have a lot of value in just keeping people on the land, keeping people in rural communities, keeping kids in rural schools.”

Small farm operators spend their money in local communities, Peters said, which helps small communities thrive.

“They’re the ones that are really propping up rural main streets,” Peters said.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.