Industrial Agriculture, an Extraction Industry Like Fossil Fuels, a Growing Driver of Climate Change
A Generational Change
The aging of a generation of farmers is also accelerating consolidation.
The average farmer is approaching 60 years old, and many farmers are relying on the land to finance retirement. But they're not selling it to young farmers, who can't afford the high land prices. They're selling it to larger farms or leasing it out. In Iowa alone, more than half the farmland is farmed by non-owners.
According to the Oakland Institute, nearly half of all U.S. farmland will change hands in the next 20 years as more farmers retire. "With an estimated $10 billion in capital already looking for access to U.S. farmland, institutional investors openly hope to expand their holdings as this retirement bulge takes place," the institute says.
Investors and tenants, critics worry, are less likely to farm in ways that conserve the soil—because conservation measures can shrink profit margins—or to grow diversified crops because there are fewer markets or support for them.
"The traditional midscale family farmers are more likely to be diversified," Hoefner said. "We used to think in terms of 1,000- or 2,500-acre grain farms being big, and now 10,000- and 15,000-acre farms are not unusual. It's very hard to imagine those extremely large grain farms diversifying to the extent that we need to solve the problem."
Last year, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced legislation calling for a temporary moratorium on mergers across the food and farming industries—from seed corporations to grocery stores.
"Consolidation has now reached a point where the top four firms in almost every sector of the food and agriculture economy have acquired abusive levels of market power," Booker said when he introduced the bill. "As a result, the U.S. is losing farmers at an alarming rate, agricultural jobs and wages are drying up, and rural communities are disappearing."
But, so far, the momentum continues in one direction.
"They all think bigger is better," Maxwell said. "Market power gives you political power. Even though many farmers would support better stewardship, we're beating our head against the wall."