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As agriculture has evolved in Mississippi, the state is losing its ‘middle class’ of farmers 

In the early 1930s, Mississippi had over 300,000 farmers, the most ever recorded for the state in federal census records. The last survey, from 2017, listed just around 55,000.  

In the 1930s, the average farm size was around 50 acres. Today, it’s over 300 acres.

For decades from the early to mid 20th Century, Black farmers outnumbered white farmers in the state. Today, 86% of Mississippi’s farmers are white. 

While agriculture is still the top employer in the state, who farms, what they farm, and who they sell to has changed greatly over the last century. Victim to many of those changes, experts say, is the so-called “middle class” of farmers.

“When we look at the decrease in farms over time, it’s largely that group of farmers, that medium scale,” said John Green, director of the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University.

Research shows that input costs – for livestock, fertilizer, pesticides, fuel and other needs – have climbed 70% since 1970 when adjusted for inflation. Green explained that those costs leave farmers more at risk, especially with the harmful climate impacts, such as drought and floods, that Mississippi has seen in recent years. 

“There’s a lot more vulnerability for those farmers when there’s a bad year, so it makes it harder to stay in the game,” Green said. 

Commissioner of Agriculture Andy Gipson, discusses the current status of farming and its future in the state, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023 at the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Land is also more expensive due to higher demand, making it harder for newer farmers to buy in and easier for older farmers to cash out.

“It’s a story that can be told in every community,” State Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson told Mississippi Today. “Grandpa and grandma had a farm, and the family wants to keep the farm. Who’s going to run it? Well, this (kid’s) got another job, that one’s moving off. What happens is the farm sits there, and then, slowly, suburbanization comes along, some developer says, ‘I’ll offer you so much for that land,’ and suddenly they don’t have the reason to keep that farm anymore.”

All of these factors are making it harder for farmers in the middle, Gipson explained: Small farmers, like the ones selling fruits and vegetables to farmers markets, will always have demand. Large operations, with technological advantages like an irrigation system, can weather a bad year. 

“Most of our farmers in Mississippi have another job to pay the bills,” Gipson said. “That’s that middle group of farmers. They’re at most risk of getting out (of the business) because there comes a point at which the input costs are so expensive that it’s not worth it financially to keep going.”

But Gipson also pointed out that, despite Mississippi having only a tenth of the number of farms it once had, production from the agriculture sector is at an all-time high. With new technology, he explained, farmers can grow more with the same amount of land.

Farm equipment is nearly submerged in flood water in north Issaquena County, Miss., Friday, April 5, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

“The good news is we’ve seen our production of agriculture, as far as the number of products, the amount of products, food and fiber and timber, continue to go up,” Gipson said. 

If production is at an all-time high, then why does it matter that Mississippi has only a fraction of the farms and farmers that it used to?

For one, farmers are getting older. As Green and two other MSU researchers wrote about recently, the average age of farmers in the U.S. grew from 50 to 57 since 1978. In Mississippi, the average is 59. Their research looks at barriers for new farmers entering the trade, as well as programs like 4-H trying to engage younger farmers and reverse the aging trend. 

But also, the loss of middle-tier farms has disrupted the cultural and economic identity of rural areas around the state. 

Carlton Turner, a Utica native, said his grandfather worked for years as a farmer on their family land until, eventually, there wasn’t enough money coming in and he had to find a new job. Today, Turner said, the job opportunities in his hometown are harder to come by.

The Sipp Culture Community Farm in Uitca, used for the group’s Small Farm Apprentice Program. Credit: Carlton Turner

“A town like Utica, that has a long history of agricultural production, the only industry here is a sawmill,” he said. “And that doesn’t provide enough jobs for the community, so the community has to go out to work in other areas.”

Turner, founder of the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production, is working to revive agricultural interest in rural, predominantly Black areas that have lost farms over the years. The loss of Black farmers in Mississippi, he said, came from both the Great Migration as well as the mechanization of farming, which reduced the need for labor. 

“The food system went from being many local producers that were producing for themselves and for their local communities, to consolidating to larger farms and larger, commercial agricultural industries,” he said. “We’ve yielded a lot of that power away from our communities in which there’s few people that are basically creating the industry and the food for many people.”

Turner also emphasized the wellness impacts of losing small and middle-tier farms, especially in one of the least healthy and most food insecure states. Restoring people’s connection with locally grown food would help reverse that trend, he explained. 

“We have some of the most fertile land, but our (health statistics are) the lowest in the country,” he said. “That is directly connected to our food systems. We need more farmers producing high quality, locally sourced whole foods because we don’t have the quality of health and wellness that we deserve as a state and as a community.”

Other local farmers are also working to fill in the gap Turner mentioned. Cindy Ayers Elliott, for instance, runs the 68-acre Foot Print Farms in Jackson, which aims to bring young people into agriculture and build the supply of locally grown, healthy foods.

In the 1930s, vegetables like sweet potatoes, cabbages, and tomatoes – not including commodity crops like corn and soybeans – made up over 160,000 acres of the state’s farmland, and tens of thousands of farms grew fruit like apples, pears, and peaches. Today, less than 40,000 acres are used for vegetables – again, excluding corn and soybeans – and just a few hundred farms grow fruit. 

As far as solutions, Gipson pointed to workforce development programs that the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce has set up to reach young people, in addition to local 4-H clubs and the state’s Future Farmers of America chapter. He also said a priority is helping family farms set up succession plans, so that farms stay active for future generations. 

Commissioner of Agriculture Andy Gipson, discusses the current status of farming and its future in the state, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023 at the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

“Farming today is high technology,” Gipson said, describing the computerized systems now used to harvest timber and row crops. “And it’s our young people who know how to do that. Connecting our young people to farms is the answer, not only for Mississippi’s long term economic viability, because agriculture is far and away our largest industry, but also in terms of keeping our young people here.”

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