Losing Ground

Farmland Consolidation and Threats to New and Black Farmers and the Future of Farming

Read the white paper

April 2021 | Rafter Ferguson| Union of Concerned Scientists

The authors of this white paper from the Union of Concerned Scientists assess the extent and distribution of farmland consolidation in the United
States from 1978 to 2017 at the county level, both nationally and in the Midwest. They also investigated connections between trends in land consolidation, new farmer entry, and changes in the number of Black farmers. Below are a few select stats and quotes from the article.

“The consolidation of farmland pushes us in the opposite direction of the change we need: exacerbating barriers to new farmers, amplifying inequality, hollowing out rural communities, and leading us further from a just and equitable food system that works for everyone.”

Farm consolidation vs. land consolidation

The relationship between concentration of farmland ownership and consolidation of farmland is complex—and further complicated by the fact that trends in farmland ownership are influenced by a patchwork of state-level laws and regulations governing ownership and investment.

Farm loss

The number of farms nationwide between 50 and 1,000 acres in size dropped in half, or by about 700,000 farms, between 1978 and 2017. The consolidation was especially sharp in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and neighboring portions of surrounding states.

Farm numbers have fallen from a peak of nearly 6.5 million in 1920 to just more than 2 million today, while average farm size has tripled.


Overall, farmland acreage declined 13 percent between 1978 and 2017. Despite the overall contraction, harvested acreage on large farms nearly doubled in size and grew by over 105 million acres, an area larger than all of California.

Consolidation is most intense for cropland, but the hollowing out of agriculture is pervasive across farming types.

In short, large crop farms are getting larger, small crop farms are getting smaller, and midsize crop farms are disappearing.

Disproportionate impact on Black farmers

Our analysis found that farmland consolidation is associated with disproportionate impacts on Black farmers.

Racist discrimination amplified the pressures brought by consolidation, and together these forces drove a 98 percent reduction in the number of Black farmers between 1920 and 2017. In contrast, the number of White farmers declined by 65 percent over the same period.

The discrimination faced by Black farmers has always been in addition to the competitive and financial pressures faced by all farmers. Black farmers were and are less likely to operate large farms. They therefore have been less likely to benefit from any of the policies that have encouraged and supported consolidation and less likely to benefit from the government
programs that primarily benefit larger farms. They are therefore also less likely to experience the competitive advantage experienced by larger farms.

The dispossession of Black farmers has taken away a major means of creating and sustaining wealth and has reinforced systemic and persistent racial inequality…Researchers estimate that land theft has robbed the Black community of $3.7 to $6.6 billion in property and income.

Losing farmers

Between 1978 and 2017, the proportion of new farmers across the country (those with less than five years of experience) fell from 18 to 13 percent. The average age of farmers increased from 51 to 59 years, while the proportion of farmers under the age of 35 fell from 15 to 5 percent.

Farmland values

Between 1978 and 2017, the cost of farmland rose an average 67 percent nationally (after adjusting for inflation). Between 1978 and 1997, farmland value fell 9 percent, only to rise 83 percent between 1997 and 2017.

Policy as a driver

The consistent trajectory of farmland consolidation is commonly attributed to several driving forces: inherent economies of scale in capital-intensive agriculture, the emergence of laborsaving technologies that allowed farmers to manage larger and larger plots of land, and the effects of competition between smaller and larger farms. These factors are important but…we must consider them in the context of more than 80 years of government policies that have disproportionately benefited large farms. Many of these policies were designed specifically with this aim—from the New Deal farm programs of the 1930s through the “get big or get out” farm policies that began in the 1950s and continue in more or less implicit forms to this day.

Impacts of consolidation

Our analysis shows that over the last four decades, barriers to new farmers grew and their growth was amplified in areas where consolidation increased the fastest.

The capture of farmland by a shrinking number of farmers and
corporations is also the capture of the land’s capacity to generate wealth and prosperity—and the exclusion of others from those benefits. Rural communities suffer from this loss, as the loss of agricultural employment leads to long-run depopulation and the loss of crucial social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, and banks.

Consolidation of farmland…has been connected with poverty and inequality in the north central United States.

Larger farms rent more land, and the uncertainty and short time span associated with renting inhibits the adoption of soil-building conservation practices (such as cover cropping or agroforestry) that may take a long time to pay off.


The drivers of consolidation are complex, and piecemeal interventions that attempt to ameliorate consequences while failing to address underlying drivers are unlikely to stem the tide—much less accomplish the reversal needed to foster the revitalization of rural communities. Improving land access is critical, but it is just a part of the puzzle. Substantive change will also require actions to change the playing field on which midsize and smaller farms compete and intervention to change the financial incentives that make scaling up desirable.

  • Create a national initiative to assess, integrate, and scale up farmland transition programs to support the next generation of farmers. This effort should prioritize the participation of three overlapping priority groups: small-to-midsize farms; farmers who are Black, Indigenous, or other people of color (BIPOC); and cooperatives and land trusts. The following actions should be included in this initiative:
    • Establish capital gains incentives for the sale of farmland to these priority groups.
    • Establish (or expand) public land trusts to purchase land from retiring farmers to be transferred or sold interest-free to priority groups.
    • Support the expansion of trusts, easements, and other cooperative ownership structures, which can support land access for new farmers while also decommodifying land and protecting it from future speculative acquisition.
    • Expand the Buy-Protect-Sell program in the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which allows land trusts to purchase land, protect it with an easement, and then sell it to a farmer at its agricultural value.
    • Conduct a national assessment and discussion of land markets, including federal and state laws and regulations, to quantify the impacts of the current system and identify needs and opportunities for reform. The results of the assessment and discussion should be captured in a detailed and publicly available report.

  • Conduct a comprehensive assessment of historical and current federal policies related to market reforms and commodity pricing mechanisms, identifying and reporting on strategies that enable farmers to cover their basic costs of production while deterring overproduction trends that drive down the prices that farmers receive for their products. The results of the assessment should be captured in a detailed and publicly available report.
  • In tandem with the national initiative on farmland transition, expand funding of the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program.
  • Redress the harm inflicted on BIPOC farmers by the past centuries of discrimination by enacting legislation offering solutions to end discrimination against all BIPOC farmers and proactively repair the damage that has been done. For example, the Justice for Black Farmers Act offers a broad set of solutions for working toward this end.
  • Work with tribal leaders, farmers, and community members, to develop additional legislative proposals to support Native farmers and communities, including by addressing the obstacles created by imposed systems of land tenure and expropriative land policies. All initiatives to support land access should integrate the needs and perspectives of the communities that represent the original inhabitants of this land, on whose dispossession this country still rests.
  • Immediately fund provisions included in the 2018 Farm Bill intended to support owners of heirs’ property and direct the USDA to prioritize implementation. These provisions include granting access to disaster aid programs for owners of heirs’ property and providing loans for owners to clear their title.
  • Expand the number of items included in the NASS’s data tables (such as the Primary Producer tables used in this study) that facilitate comparison across years of methodological changes. Additionally, expand data tables describing the magnitude of adjustments for coverage, nonresponse, and misclassification (such as are published in PDF form in the methodological appendices of the COA), to include adjustment information for more data items, and make these adjustment tables easily accessible to researchers and the broader public through the QuickStats portal.