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So long, red and white barns – farms are declining, study finds

 Cora Stewart leans over a field of crops with a farming tool in hand with a person standing to her right watching.
Emma VandenEinde
/
KUNC
Cora Stewart, the Southwest field coordinator for the Forest Stewards Guild, stands next to farmer Bryn Fragua as she tests the dirt at the Flower Hill Institute in Jemez Pueblo, N.M., on June 22, 2023. The institute is a Native-owned, community-directed nonprofit that aims to promote food sovereignty and improve agricultural outcomes amid climate change.

Harvest time is on the horizon for many farmers. But a recent study published in the journalNature Sustainability shows that there are fewer and fewer farms – which could have great implications for produce prices and access.

There were 616 million farms worldwide as of 2020. But according to the study data – which looked at the agricultural area, rural population size and GDP per capita of more than 180 countries – by the end of the 21st century, there will likely be less than half the current number of farms worldwide. The study predicts the quantity of farms to drop to 272 million.

“We've basically seen a transition from farm creation to farm consolidation, especially in Western Europe [and] in Northern America,” Zia Mehrabi, the author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, said.

He said economic development in these regions has pushed people toward urban areas, creating a rural labor deficit. That pressures many farmers to mechanize and consolidate their lands, which is not always easy for small farms.

“The smaller farms, typically they get squeezed out,” he said, “because they're not top priority, because they don't have access to all the services.”

Mehrabi said this could lead to a drop in food prices as farms become more streamlined and efficient. But this consolidation is not immune to the shocks of climate change and diminishing crop variety. If a company only has one big farm with one type of crop, a heat wave or bad soil in that area could have severe ramifications on that crop’s price and availability on the global market.

“Climate change is the big problem today, but the biodiversity is right there next to it,” he said. “We've seen massive biodiversity loss in agricultural landscapes as the size of the farms increases.”

Those farmers who remain are expected to continue feeding the growing global population, which could lead to increased mental health problems for farmers.

“You end up having half the number of people feeding more of the population than we have in the world today,” Mehrabi said. “That's a lot of pressure on farmers to have that. And there's a lot of pressure from society to deliver on that.”

Mehrabi remains an optimist, and he said this data allows people to think proactively about the agricultural transition. He recommended improving farmers’ access to services and support so they feel more empowered to defend their needs to agribusiness, retailers and the government.

But the most fundamental solution, he argues, would be planting a variety of crops, as it is a promising strategy in the face of a changing climate.

“The easiest answer is a couple of words. It’s 'diversify food systems,'” he said. “We need to diversify our production systems so that [they are] less susceptible to shocks.”

Mehrabi hopes people will take this data to heart and understand that we all have a role to play when it comes to agriculture.

“It's important to think about where our food comes from, you know, and who grows our food,” he said. "We all kind of have a responsibility if we're eating the food to actually care about how it impacts people, how it impacts the environment.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.
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