September 19, 2023

Small Farms Have a Big Impact on Pennsylvania Agriculture

A farmer in Darlington, Pa. Baling hay on May 26, 2020.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Although they outnumber large farms by far, small farms produce only a tiny fraction of Pennsylvania’s total agricultural production.

However, these small farms support billions of dollars of economic activity while helping to preserve farmland and adding to the state’s agricultural diversity, according to researchers from the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences.

The researchers, affiliated with the college’s Center for Economic and Community Development, analyzed data from the US Department of Agriculture and summarized their findings in two reports: “Not Inconsequential: The Economic Effect of Small Farms in Pennsylvania, 2017” and “Understanding the Quiet Majority: Small Farms in Pennsylvania, 2017.”

The reports are part of a series called “Understanding Agriculture in Pennsylvania: A 2017 Update” that explores various aspects of the USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture. The agricultural census is compiled every five years and the 2017 census results were released in 2019.

“Small farms are often overlooked or even dismissed when people talk about agriculture in Pennsylvania,” said Timothy Kelsey, co-director of the Center for Economic and Community Development. “Although they contribute relatively little to the state’s total agricultural production, smaller farms outnumber larger ones. By focusing closely on the value of their agricultural sales, we miss the important roles they play in the Commonwealth. “


The USDA defines small farms as those with annual agricultural product sales of less than $ 250,000, a category that applied to 88% of Pennsylvania farms in 2017. The share of these farms in total product sales in 2017 was around 19%.

However, 27,000 farms in the state, or about 51% of all farms, had sales of less than $ 10,000, collectively representing only 0.8% of total farm sales that year. In contrast, the 3,087 farms with more than $ 500,000 in annual sales accounted for only 5.8% of Pennsylvania farms, but accounted for almost two-thirds of all farm sales.

Kelsey pointed out that most of Pennsylvania’s small farms lose money, largely because many are operated for lifestyle or leisure purposes or to supplement a family’s food supply and not to provide most of the household income.

Economic benefits

He explained that despite their relatively low production, smallholder farms still contribute to the economy through their purchases, spending around $ 1.5 billion in production costs and generating around $ 2.2 billion in direct economic activities. , indirect and induced in 2017.

“Small farms buy a significant amount of supplies and services from local farm businesses that large farms also rely on, and thus help those businesses stay in business,” he said. “Many small farms also buy agricultural products, such as hay or other animal feed, from neighboring large farms, which helps financially support these large farms. “

Other benefits

The benefits of smallholder farming, however, go beyond economics, said report co-author Emily Ciganik, undergraduate research associate at the Center for Community and Economic Development.

“Small farms are important stewards of farmland in Pennsylvania, keeping the land open and providing environmental benefits,” she said. “In addition, owners of small farms can be important allies of large farms by advocating for local policies favorable to agriculture, giving a stronger voice to the farming community. “

Besides the differences in sales volume, small and large farms differ in the types of agricultural products they produce, the reports say.

“Small farms are much more likely to have their main activity around the production of hay, beef cattle, aquaculture and other animals, which can include bees, horses, rabbits and others. species, ”said Jessica, undergraduate research associate and co-author. Shi. “On the other hand, a much higher percentage of large farms focus primarily on dairy and poultry production. “


The reports also highlight the demographic characteristics that distinguish operators from small and large farms, noted co-author Alyssa Gurklis, program and project coordinator of the Center for Economic and Community Development, who said operators of small farms tended to age.

“The average age of operators of farms selling less than $ 1,000 worth of agricultural produce per year was 59.1 years in 2017, compared to an average age of only 49.6 years among operators of farms selling more than $ 1,000. million dollars, ”Gurklis said. “About a third of operators of farms with sales between $ 5,000 and $ 9,999 were 65 or older, while only 12.5% ​​of operators of farms selling between $ 250,000 and $ 499,999 were 65 years old. or more. “

She added that operators of small farms were also more likely to have an off-farm job and spend more days, on average, working off the farm than those who supervised larger operations.

These reports and others in the “Understanding Pennsylvania Agriculture, 2017 Update” series are available on the Center for Economic and Community Development website.


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