Does size matter?

We have now reached part 3 of our common questions series. I actually had a difficult time thinking of another topic to discuss, even though there are plenty of questions commonly asked of farmers and ranchers. I decided to touch on a subject that often seems like a benign question for many, but is a loaded question in the mind of many farmers and ranchers: How many acres do you farm? How many cattle do you have?

In many cases it is a question that we do not think twice about asking – it is often asked by agricultural media or media in general during the course of an interview, it is often asked between farmers – usually as we attempt to gain understanding about a certain issue or place context on other parts of a conversation. Outside of that however a seemingly simple question is suddenly not so simple. But it’s in reality, it is really not simple. Before we get into why the question is not simple, we’ll review some facts about the size of farms across the United States and within Montana.

Average size of a farm in the United States: 442 acres**

Average size of a farm with $250,000-499,999 in gross sales in the United States: 1,296 acres**

Average size of a farm in Montana: 2,179 acres**

Average size of a farm in Montana with $250-499,999 in gross sales a year: 5,020 acres 

Average size of a beef cattle herd in the United States: 40 head

** Includes all operations with at least $1,000 in gross annual sales.

These numbers help to illustrate the wide variety of sizes and acreages that can be found across the nation. Farms and ranches vary so widely that it is impossible to tell if a farm with 10,000 acres in Montana is worth more or generates more in gross sales than a 50 acre apple orchard in New York. The simple numbers do not tell the whole story. As with everything in agriculture, they are not black and white.

Depending on who asks the question – farmers have several thoughts run through their mind:

Why? If I tell you will you assume I am rich? Will you assume I am poor? Will you assume I am not successful? If the number is too small will you assume I am not really a farmer, I just pretend? If the number is too big will you assume I am a “shill” for “Big Ag” and am trying to poison you? 

These sort of questions are unfortunately a reality for farmers, even if you do not mean anything by the question. This is what we think about. Yet, it is a common question. People are curious and I understand their curiosity, however, please know it is a loaded question. For us, we farm just short of 10,000 acres. For this area, that is not a huge operation, it is simply average. Or I consider it average anyway. If you are a stranger asking and the only number you know is the average farm in the United States is 442 acres, you can understand their shock. 10,000 is a very big number when taken out of context. 10,000 is also often the number individuals use to stick you in the “”shill” for Big Ag”. It is an unfortunate category, since 96.4% of farms in the United States are family owned and we are not “shills” for anyone.

I almost always automatically worry that people will suddenly see our operation as far larger than it really is. There is a reason I see it as average – it is because it is similar in size to many of our neighbors, many of our friends. It is not any better or worse than any of those operations. We each have our strengths and weaknesses – and none of them have to do with the number of acres we farm. Without context for the number, I worry people will not understand that it is just another farm, intertwined with thousands of other acres, hundreds of other farmers, scattered across the country.

Interestingly I get less anxiety when people ask us the size of our cattle herd, largely because I consider it to be a small herd and therefore less of a loaded answer. We have roughly 130 head of cattle. The average size of the U.S. beef cattle herd however is only 40 (a fact I did not know until I was researching for this post). We are surrounded by far larger cattle operations however and 130 feels small. See? It is all relative.

Ranchers who do bristle at that question have many of the same questions I listed above running through their mind. They also often wonder if people are doing math in their head and multiplying the value of a cow times the number they throw out there. Unless we are working with our banker at the end of the year to create a balance sheet we rarely assign a value to our cattle or our acreage, we know they have value, we know we can have a larger than average net worth. But we also know we never want to convert our acreage or our cattle into those liquid dollars. If we are something has gone horribly awry. If all of our fixed capital assets are being liquidated into actual dollars then we have sold them, we have essentially quit farming.

I do not want to give that you cannot inquire about the size of a farm or ranch, however understand that it is not a black and white question. I have seen before people ask random strangers how many acres they farm on social media in order to judge if they were truly a farmer. That is an impossible way to judge who is or is not a farmer. As I illustrated above – our 10,000 acres is just as much a farm as one of my counterparts managing a 50 acre apple orchard in New York. In Massachusetts the average size of farms with over $1,000,000.00 in gross sales is 625 acres. There are 80 farms that fit that description in the state. In Montana the average size is 13,158 to achieve that gross sales average. There are 950 farms of that size and sales figures in the state.

Over the years most of us craft answers for this common question that do not include a number. Often we say “enough”. Or “enough to keep us busy”. Or “not big enough”. Or “too many”. It is a way to answer the question, keep the conversation moving along, and to keep our anxiety limited. Sometimes you will hear us give out the number, if it is truly relevant to the conversation, I will always be honest. If I know it is not relevant to the conversation – I am likely to either under cut our acreage and/or give one of the answers listed above.

The answer to the title is a resounding no. No, size does not matter in agriculture. We need farms of all shapes and sizes to provide the world with the food and fiber we need. We need them all. Hopefully this post does not shame anyone who asks the question often – that is not my intent – but I do hope that maybe you will gain some insight into what farmers are thinking when it is asked. Perhaps next time instead of inquiring about the number of acres we farm consider some of the following questions:

What crops do you raise? 

What crop is your favorite to raise? 

What farming achievement are you most proud of? 

What is your favorite crop to harvest? 

What end uses do you sell your crops for? 

Some farmers might give you a funny look – simply because none of those questions are standard conversation pieces (except maybe what do you raise?) – however I can promise you they will generate conversation, and be far more interesting than just the number of acres we farm or the number of cattle we own.

Sources for data:

Farms and Land in Farms 2016

Montana Ag Facts

Average size of a U.S. apple orchard: 50 acres


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