Acreage not best way to judge a farm’s success

How many acres do you farm?

It may seem like a straight-forward, natural question, but it isn’t always a comfortable question to answer. Plus, the answer can be open to a lot of interpretation.

You’ve probably been asked the question repeatedly if you engage in conversations at farm trade show booths while talking to vendors of anything from agronomic services and products to machinery.

In many respects, it makes sense. Companies wanting to sell you something have a better idea of your needs if they can understand the scope of your operation. A 2,500 acre farmer is more likely to be in the market for a 40 or 50 foot drill than a 70 or 80 foot version.

However, it often feels like you’re being judged. If you have a relatively small acreage, you’re not very successful and you’re not a good sales prospect.

“Please keep moving so I can talk to bigger farmers with more money to spend. You probably can’t afford what I’m offering.” They may not say it, but you wonder if they’re thinking it.

Unless you can throw out an impressive acreage, it almost feels like you aren’t validated. Even the survey companies that call and email incessantly, desperate to meet their response quotas, might disqualify you from answering because your acreage of a particular crop doesn’t meet the specifications.

Many small to medium sized producers are approached by large acreage farms asking if their land is for sale or rent. The prevailing opinion is that only big farms have a future and smaller operations are just wasting their time.

News flash. Small to medium sized grain farms can be profitable and progressive. While the trend to larger operations will continue, don’t judge a farm’s success simply by its acreage.

Consider a farm that’s 6,000 acres. That may sound like a pretty good size, but what if three families are trying to make a living from those acres? And what if most of the acres are rented rather than owned? What if the cash rent is exorbitant? And what if the family relationships are strained and everyone isn’t getting along?

What about that farm with less than 2,000 acres? Maybe the land is paid for and they’re growing some higher value crops, watching their costs and making a good living. Maybe they have some strong off-farm revenue streams that will give them a lot of staying power if the grain economy hits a rough stretch.

Some producers are absolutely driven to farm a larger and larger land mass. Their definition of success seems rooted in continual expansion. Some want to operate under the radar. Others like to flaunt their size.

A large gross income doesn’t necessarily equate to a strong net income. While some large farms are making boatloads of money, others aren’t doing as well.

For those with small to medium sized acreages (however you want to define that), there’s no need to apologize and no need to feel second rate. By the same token, there’s no reason to harbour resentment against others just because they farm larger acreages.

There’s a place for all of us, and we have mostly common concerns and needs.

However, the next time you hear, “how many acres do you farm?” realize that it’s a loaded question carrying a great deal of baggage and probably a number of caveats.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at kevin@hursh.ca.

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