As a Johnson County farmer drives his tractor through the field in spring, it’s automatically planting several rows of crops and changing the amount of seeds in different spots in order to raise the greatest amount of crops.
The technology has allowed Rob Richards and Indy Family Farms to raise more crops on thousands of acres of land, allowing the business to continue to grow.
New technology, such as computerized planting programs and larger tractors and combines, are allowing farmers to cover more ground than ever before.
But rising costs for supplies such as seed and fertilizer, higher land rent costs and big price tags on new equipment are also nudging farmers to go bigger to generate more revenue to make those purchases, local farmers and a Purdue University professor said.
The county has fewer farms than it did 10 years ago, but the farms that remain are getting bigger. From
2002 to 2012, the number of farms in Johnson County decreased by 6 percent to 562 farms, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
But during that same period, the average size of farms went up 14 percent to 257 acres.
More farmers are working 1,000 acres of ground, with 22 percent more farms of that size in Johnson County compared to 2002. Farms of less than 10 acres were the only other category that had more farms than in 2002. Most counties in central Indiana had similar changes, with growth typically only occurring in small farms and farms of 1,000 acres or more, according to the Census reports.
Fewer farmers are in business but those that remain are growing their farm sizes, which reflects the continuing improvement in technology that started in the 1940s, Purdue University professor Chris Hurt said. The number of small farms also is growing because residents have been seeking more local produce or meats bought directly from farmers or at local markets, he said.
The average prices of crops and livestock sold by farmers has risen significantly since 2002, which has helped keep farming profitable. In Johnson County, the average sales of agriculture products such as grains, meat or milk increased by 52 percent. Farms in Hamilton, Hancock, Morgan and Shelby counties had larger increases of nearly 150 percent.
Large farmers that sell more than $500,000 of goods each year make up about 10 percent of total farms in the state and generate 80 percent of the state’s more than $11 billion in farm income, Hurt said. But small farms continue to have a valuable place in the market too, Hurt said.
Small farmers that sell directly to consumers generate less than 1 percent of the state’s total income, but the number of small farms has grown by about
3 percent in the last five years. That growth has been in response to a greater demand for locally-grown produce like people would find at a farmers’ market, he said.
Commercial farmers benefit from growing bigger, because they can get savings when they buy supplies such as seed or chemicals in bulk. Farmers can get more savings if they need to buy seed, fertilizer and chemicals for 10,000 acres as opposed to 1,000 acres, Richards said. Indy Family Farms maintains thousands of acres in multiple counties, including Johnson County.
New tractors and combines have gotten bigger and come with more computerized technology such as GPS auto-steering or variable planting that can put down more or less seed in certain fields depending on the soil, which also has made them pricier. A farmer will need to cover more acres to generate enough income to afford that one-time purchase as well as take advantage of the bigger and better technology, Richards said.
“When I was growing up I remember (my dad) was excited because he got a four-row corn planter. Now the equipment does allow you to do more with less, which helps with efficiencies,” Richards said.
Smaller farms can have a harder time keeping up with increasing prices, said Chris Hendricks, a Johnson County Farm Bureau member who farms ground near Franklin and in Needham Township.
Hendricks farms about 1,000 acres, so he can’t afford to buy new equipment or the best technology and instead gets used machinery when larger farmers sell, he said.
His farm size has decreased in recent years from about 1,600 acres because some of the land he used to farm was sold or rented to different farmers, he said. A larger farmer with a higher income can potentially offer to pay more cash rent for an acre of land than a smaller operator, which is also pushing smaller farmers to either find ways to grow or shrink and go out of business.
Farmers also have been affected by changes in banking since the 2008 recession, which has tightened regulations for how banks give out loans, Richards said. Fewer banks will now lend to farmers and those that do are reviewing more financial data than in the past, he said. A farmer who doesn’t have a lot of acres and a strong income may have a harder time getting a loan needed for supplies that they can pay back after harvest, he said.
Having a smaller farm allows Hendricks to focus more of his attention on studying specific plots and tailoring specialized planting or nutrient plans to specific areas to boost yields, instead of just adding more acres, he said. Watching costs and selling grain at the right time is also especially important to keep a farm financially secure, he said.
“It’s a romantic notion to be a farmer and out here working with the land and that whole lifestyle. If you’re not a businessman, too, you’re probably not going to make it. The romantic side is just the fun part,” he said.