In 1977, a local farmer by the name of TJ Gilles published a history of Montana agriculture. Tracing a narrative for the agrarian lifestyle in his home state, Gilles balances a hopeful outlook with fear. He believes in the resilience of the agricultural livelihoods, but all around him – farmers have been disappearing. From the 1950s to the publication of his book When Tillage Began in 1977, the number of Montana farms dropped by half. With a shade of dryness, he wrote: “While the US Department of Agriculture tells us that farming is strictly business, not a way of life, the fact remains that even the most prosperous agriculturalist could probably make more money were his talents applied to another industry.” The following decades would prove his statement prescient.  Since the turn of the century, the total number of Montana farms remains in decline.

In this, Montana is not unique. The state follows this national trend, and what is, increasingly, a global phenomenon. Farm size is increasing, while the number of farms is decreasing. Consolidation affects both the size and number of farms, as well as the proportion of food produced by ‘mega-farms’.

For example, between 1987 and 2012, the number of US farms operating on 2,000 or more acres grew by 30%,which increased the average farm size from 650 acres to over 1,200. Within roughly the same period, total US production shifted accordingly. Today, over half of US food comes from farms with at least one million dollars in sales – a 20% rise from 1991.

Typically, the subject of farm size is dominated by the field of economics. Reinforcing the idea that farming is ‘strictly business’, economists have been chiefly focused on farm size for two reasons: maximizing land and labour productivity. However, this task proved far from straight forward. For decades the subject created controversy. Though farm consolidation since the 1950s was already becoming the norm, economists consistently and counter-intuitively found small farms to stubbornly achieve more output per acre than large farms.

The farm size puzzle persisted until 2017. This was when economists recognized that productivity follows a U-distribution curve. This finding posits production to be highest among the smallest and largest farms.

While the U-curve gives the farm size conundrum some long-awaited rest, one must ask: Does the topic of farm size pertain exclusively to economics? Is farming indeed ‘strictly business’?

In 2014, just west over the Montana border, the US Idaho District Court tackled this very question. In litigation over free speech relating to the agriculture industry, the Court decided in favour of public rights over private interests. Whereas First Amendment concerns often justify themselves, the Court’s logic found additional justification. The ruling, ALDF v. Otterprofoundly affirmed that free speech serves its intrinsic political purpose in interfering with agricultural production: producing food is not merely a private matter. Rather, agriculture is a matter of great public concern. Besides being a business interest, agriculture is essential to meeting dietary needs. More than food security, food production has dynamic impacts on public health.

As a discipline, public health is equipped for the task. Its field is poised to break down disciplinary boundaries to understand how society and the environment link to human health. Its primary concern is disease prevention. Efforts at disease prevention attempt to consider ‘upstream’ causes of illness. Effective actions that preempt the onset of disease need good strategy along with a framework that captures the entire system at play. So far, the topic of farm size has largely remained in an economic silo – its narrow paradigm fixed to maximize production. Alternatively, shifting from an economic view broadens a hawk-like focus on boosting output to examine agriculture’s other outcomes.

While small and large farms are comparable in terms of productivity, their methods of achieving output differ greatly. In fact, farm size predicts management practices. In turn, differing methods of production influence environmental and community health.

A primary difference between small and large farms begins with how they break ground. Here, the U-distribution curve offers insight into diverging methods of plough and harrow. Large farms’ ability to employ labour is often limited, which makes operators more reliant on machinery. Ironically, small farms are generally characterized by their inability to afford machinery.

The Norwegian author Knut Hamsun describes the machine’s agricultural revolution in his 1917 novel, Growth of Soil. Hamsun tells the story of a farming man named Isak, who settles his homestead beyond the moors and deep within the woods. Isak’s dedicated labour affords him a larger farm, and in turn, he affords a red and blue machine – a splendour to his eyes. The moment of the machine’s revealing, rivals no other hour in Isak’s entire life. The machine transcends the drudgery of his labour on the farm to a new caliber; he becomes a man of “scientific work”.

As the reader, it is difficult to not swell with pride alongside Isak. The moment that Hamsun describes feels something like a declaration of human progress. Over one hundred years later, with larger, more specialized equipment, scientists are beginning to recognize that machines have their drawbacks. For example, the Research Council of Norway now recognises that heavy machinery causes soil compaction, decreasing oxygen and suffocating microorganisms and fungi. Further, compacted soil drains less surface water, increasing water pollution and erosion.

Mechanisation, however, is just one way farm size impacts practice. A connection between farm size and pesticide use has been recently realised by a unique study published in China. After analysing diverse information from 20,000 farming households, the researchers found that the association between farm size and pesticide use was consistent even after soil quality, crop type and region were all statistically adjusted. In other words, farm size was a strong factor influencing the application and amount of pesticides when other factors were isolated and then compared.

Again, greater use of pesticides is likely an outcome of large farms’ inability to ‘tighten the belt’ and employ labour. Pesticides are a labour-saving technology, and their alternatives are costly. Methods of pest-control without chemicals include a variety of labour-intensive techniques such as rotation of crops or diversifying the varieties planted.

Pesticides save cash from the expense of labour, but their use has consequences. Pesticides’ impacts on health have been tracked for decades, eliciting scientists’ criticism and activism from Rachel Carsonto Sandra Steingraber. Pesticides are known to relate to the development of cancers like Hodgkin’s disease, Leukaemia, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and many others. Research also connects pesticides to obesity, type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Avoiding pesticides protects public health and the environment, however, decision-making landowners of large farms may understand labour productivity to be at odds with land productivity. As a result, they might favour labour-saving practices. This preference is reflected by innovations in agritechnology. Investments in agritechnologies have been labour-saving rather than land-saving.

Meanwhile,small farms preserve land quality. Economists, interested in the productivity benefits of land quality, disputed for years over the advantages of small farms. Opponents argued that owners of small farms overestimated their land quality. Developments in GIS technology, however, put doubt to rest: It is unanimous that farm size endogenously reflects land quality.

The relationship between farm size and land quality can be explained by a different kind of relationship: husbandry. Unlike large farms, small farms are able to use and depend on human labour. Small farms are not merely assets to public health because of harmful practices they don’t use, but importantly, for what they do positively. For example, the poet and farmer Wendell Berry describes husbandry of the land as to “use with care, to keep, to save, to make last, and to conserve.

A small farm’s ability to meaningfully employ labour translates directly to a healthier community. Community health is a sub-discipline of public health that focuses on health characteristics of a particular community, such as income disparity. It takes a holistic approach to identify community needs so people can live well. Accordingly, this lens explores the social and economic implications of farm consolidation. For example, in addition to employing less labour on the farm, large operations displace other local jobs by relying on integrated supply chains, which are often centralized and far away.

Economic concentration tends to remove a higher percentage of money from rural communities. This phenomenon was well documented as early as 1946 from the research of Walter Goldschmidt.

An early systems-thinker, Goldschmidt was Professor of Anthropology at University of California Los Angeles. While his colleagues from the economics department saw larger farms as an opportunity to achieve greater efficiency, Goldschmidt wanted to know: what are the social impacts of farm consolidation?

His research interrupted in-vogue academic interests with an air horn. He compared two agricultural communities near his university. The first was dominated by larger, industrial farms and the other was made up of smaller, owner-operator farms. He found the town comprising small farms to have a richer civic and social fabric, people made more local purchases and community members garnered more equitable income. On the other side of the fence, the town composed of large farms had a dearth of civic organisations and stark segregation of social class.

The influence of agriculture on community as well as its environmental health applies to farm size. Stuck inside its economic silo, the subject of farm size needs an improved and holistic perspective that focuses on public health – irrespective of volume of production. Promotion of health and vibrant communities needs a renewed perspective on agriculture as a public – not merely a private – concern.

Photograph: Rebecca Michael Elderkin

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