Gary Marshall has a small alfalfa farm in Osgood in rural Bonneville County. It’s surrounded by much larger farms.
He bought the land 28 years ago — at the time it was 40 acres. Two years ago, he bought 50 more acres.
“I had a couple of neighbors say to me, ‘Have you got sawdust in your head?’” Marshall said. “The bad thing in 100 acres is you can’t drive around in a pickup and tell everyone what to do. You have to do everything yourself. Most people don’t want to be bothered with that much.”
Marshall’s farm is in a size demographic — between 50 and 149 acres — that’s been declining in Idaho over the past decade.
“I don’t know anybody else that just has 95 acres,” Marshall said.
Idaho farms are either getting smaller or bigger, according to the recently released Census of Agriculture, which collects data every five years from farms and ranches that produce at least $1,000 worth of products in a year.
Very small farms, or hobby farms, are exploding, and the number of large farms is increasing, as well. Everything in between, from 50 to 1,999 acres, is dropping off.
Small and mid-sized farms decreased from 2007 to 2012, then again from 2012 to 2017, according to the census.
Overall, the number of Idaho farms has increased. The number of Idaho farms increased by 0.7 percent between 2012 and 2017, bucking the national trend.
Nationwide the number of farms decreased by 3 percent in that time period.
But most of the new farms were either very small or large, which is consistent with national trends.
Of the 24,996 Idaho farms counted in the 2017 census, 14,010 were between 1 and 49 acres. Large farms numbered 1,273. Hobby farms in Idaho grew nearly 18 percent over the last five years. Large farms had a relatively modest 5 percent increase.
On the other hand, Idaho small and mid-sized farms decreased by about 17 percent between 2007 and 2017. Nationwide they decreased by 13.4 percent.
While most farms in Idaho are very small, most of the money produced in Idaho’s agriculture economy comes from large farms.
Large farms produced 58.6 percent of total farm product sales in Idaho in 2017, while the smallest category, 1-9 acres, produced .01 percent of farm sales, according to the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.
What’s happening to mid-sized farms?
Small and large farms are more efficient, according to Ben Eborn, an agriculture economist at the University of Idaho.
“In order to be economically efficient you really do need to be a certain size,” Eborn said. “Machinery expenses really are what’s driving this split, I think.”
The average market value of machinery on Idaho farms is $175,951, according to the census. Product sales have to be high in order to afford the equipment — and labor — required to manage hundreds of acres or more — and for a full-time farming gig to be economically feasible.
“Or you can choose the other option and be small and specialized and be economically profitable,” Eborn said. “The middle people that were full-time farmers probably had to decide to go one way or the other: either get bigger or smaller.”
Lance Ellis, of Rigby, owns a small and specialized farm. It’s 27 acres, where he raises cattle and horses and grows alfalfa.
“It’s nothing more than just a hobby farm,” Ellis said.
Ellis, an educator at the University of Idaho’s Fremont County extension, teaches people how to efficiently run a hobby farm, typically defined as a farm with fewer than 50 acres.
Ellis credits the explosion of very small farms to the lifestyle they provide.
“It’s totally a lifestyle choice,” Ellis said. “Small farmers are not running it as a business. Small farms just aren’t an efficient way to produce food anymore.”
Instead of commercializing the land, hobby farmers invest in a lifestyle that provides a valuable learning environment for children and an empowering hobby for people who already have a day job that pays the bills.
“Whether it’s profitable or not, people want to be able to run their own business,” Ellis said.
Often, it’s not profitable. Investing in the land and equipment to farm requires significant upfront costs. Ellis said hobby farmers won’t be profitable for at least a few years, if at all.
While commercial farms are becoming larger and more consolidated, and hobby farms are getting smaller, Marshall’s farm in Osgood is holding steady somewhere in between.
Larger farms around him are expanding and itching to buy his land. He’s waiting them out until retirement.
Marshall, an Idaho state representative by day, says he’s not a hobby farmer. His farm is small, but it’s not that small. And he’s not your typical commercial farmer, either.
He has one tractor. He fertilizes and irrigates the land himself (or gets help from his grandchildren). Any work that requires heavier equipment he outsources to his neighbor, who farms thousands of acres.
His land provides valuable money for his family. That’s why he does it.
“It’s partly our retirement. It’s what we do to make a little money,” Marshall said.
Marshall doesn’t have any plans to sell his farm. He hopes to pass it on to his family. If the younger generation doesn’t want it, maybe they’ll lease it.
Eborn said the decrease in mid-sized farms, many of which are family farms, is also due to the younger generation’s waning interest in farming.
“Fewer and fewer young people are wanting to come back to the farm,” he said.
If there’s nobody in the family to run it, the farmer “either sells it or rents it to his neighbors who want to expand,” Eborn said.