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Small farms in the Mountain States are disappearing

Updated: Mar 14

Farm numbers across the United States are dwindling and the mountain states are no exception. Our country lost 7% of farms from 2017 to 2022, and all of the mountain states were above the national average. As a farmer in the region, I understand the stress of this profession, and if our country continues on its current trajectory our region’s agricultural future looks bleak – more consolidation and less food security.


From 2017 to 2022, Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming all experienced a decrease in the total number of farms. Wyoming saw the largest decrease at 12% of farms, totaling 1,394 farms in the state that chose to end operations. Montana and Washington had the second largest decreases of 10 percent, a raw total of 2,782 and 3,717 farms, respectively. Idaho trailed behind at 8 percent with 2,119 farms ending operations.


The decrease in farms over the last five years is the largest seen between two National Agricultural Censuses. This decrease in farming operations is seen despite the highest net farm income recorded during this time frame. Why, during a period of historical profits were farms ending operations?


Look at the breakdown of farm number changes by income. According to the census data in 2022 and 2017, farm losses were highest in the low-income categories. The smaller farms are the ones disappearing at upwards of 40% and close to 50% in the case of Idaho farms with incomes between $200,000 to $499,999. Farm number losses are huge for operations under half a million dollars in total sales.


But the trend reverses for farms with revenue above $500,000. Almost all income brackets above $500,000 saw an increase in farming operations (except one income bracket in Montana). With the largest increases in the top income category of $10,000,000 or more.

The loss of farms isn’t driven by only one issue. Regulations, input costs, pandemic changes, trade disruptions, aging operators, and agricultural land development are all pushing out farms. The smallest farms are experiencing the greatest challenges. Some farms have risen to the occasion and grown to survive the market variance. However, there are still many farms ending operations.


Everyone should be concerned about the loss of farms in the United States. The majority of our food production is grown by the largest operations, so volume isn’t the concern but security is. Just look at the result of the COVID shutdowns. Many of the large operations experienced plant and processing shutdowns for weeks at a time from outbreaks among employees, and grocery store shelves went empty.


Having many producers involved in food production insulates end consumers from supply disruptions. One producer will likely experience operational challenges throughout the growing season be it weather, trade, policy, or labor challenges. If only a few producers are present in the market supply disruptions are inevitable. However, if many producers, both small and large, are actively engaged in the industry, it insulates the end consumer from supply disruptions, because it is unlikely many producers face the same production challenges.


Challenges are increasing for farm operations as this last year was expected to be one of the largest declines in net cash farm income in history, the largest in nominal terms and third largest adjusted to inflation. Farms need to become resilient to market fluctuations like the one experienced in 2023.

Policies in the mountain states need to encourage agriculture. Efforts should be made to ease the burdens of remaining in the agricultural industry for small producers like decreasing regulatory burdens, encouraging agricultural land to remain in production at reasonable rental rates, improving labor supply restrictions, and encouraging trade agreements benefiting agricultural products. Before policies are adopted it is worth questioning what the result will be for small producers, because those are the operations least likely to survive.

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