Farmland Owners Hit a Record Low : * Agriculture: Fewer people are now making decisions about the use of land, a USDA report says.

From Associated Press

Nearly half of all U.S. farmland is in the hands of just 124,000 owners, according to a new Agriculture Department study that finds the number of people who own farmland has shrunk to the lowest level of the century.

As the number of farmland owners shrinks, the concentration of ownership becomes of greater interest because decisions about the use of land and investment in improvements, conservation and resource quality are made by an even smaller minority of the overall population, the report said.

The report, by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, also found that many owners have little direct role in operating the nation’s 2 million farms and ranches.

“That means that decisions concerning larger operations are being made by fewer farmers and fewer, but proportionately more, non-farmer landowners,” the report said. “These changes in the structure of farmland ownership parallel the enlargement of farm size, reduction in farm numbers and reduction in farm employment.”


The report said a 1989 survey of farm ownership estimated that by the end of 1988 there were 2.95 million people who owned 833 million acres of private farmland.

But about 124,000 owners, or 4% of the total, held 47% of the land. And owners whose holdings contained less than 50 acres accounted for 30% of the total but held only 2% of the acreage.

The report also said that of the total owners, 44% were non-operators and held 41% of the land.

“The century began with more operators (including renters) than owners, and is ending with substantially more owners than operators,” the study said. “Compared with owners and operators, the amount of land in farms, which peaked in the 1950s, has changed little.”


While the total acreage in today’s farms is only slightly more than in 1900, the average farm size has more than tripled.

The study said current trends should leave 1.7 million farms and 2.7 million owners by the year 2000, compared to 5.7 million farms and 4.9 million agricultural landowners in 1900.

“The shrinking number of farms and landowners will contribute further to the decline of rural communities and may affect markets for commodities and factors of production,” the report said.

The transition to large, absentee owners from small owner-operators seems to be a more significant trend than foreign ownership of U.S. farmland. Only slightly more than 1% of all U.S. agricultural land--including forest land--is owned by foreign interests, according to separate statistics from the USDA.


While that figure rose in 1990 from the year before, experts believe that the increases may be attributed to growing awareness of reporting guidelines, which require U.S. companies to register their land as foreign-held if 10% or more of the company’s stock is owned by foreign investors.

Foreign-based investors own about 5.5 million acres of agricultural land--and perhaps half of that is forest land. Nearly half of all foreign-owned land is held by Canadian and British investors; Japanese hold a mere 4% of foreign-owned U.S. agricultural land.