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Farm numbers drop in South Dakota, ag survey shows

People check out machinery and implements at the Sioux Falls Farm Show in Sioux Falls, S.D., in 2015. Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service

ABERDEEN, S.D. - Spring planting has started in some areas of South Dakota, but if current trends continue, there may be fewer farmers heading back into the fields.

South Dakota’s farmland was worked by fewer farming operations from 2012 to 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture. The census is conducted every five years, and the 2017 data was recently released.

Statewide, more than 43 million acres were farm operated, equivalent to 57 million football fields.

However, there were 2,000 fewer farming operations in the state in 2017 than in 2012. The biggest drop — 1,850 — came from those operating between 10 and 1,000 acres.

Consolidation within the agriculture industry has been a continuing issue for decades, but it has sped up through the down economy, said Nate Franzén, president of the Ag Banking Division at First Dakota National Bank based in Yankton. The bank has grown the number of farms and ranches it lends to, but that’s because of growth in the company and territory it lends to, he said.

There are farming operations throughout the state that are going out of business, some through retirement, others through financial struggles and still others because of other business opportunities, Franzén said. Tougher margins and economic market are also factors.

That means, for rural communities, fewer people buying groceries, purchasing vehicles, going to the bank and more, he said. It’s an ongoing challenge that towns in South Dakota are facing.

There are some communities, though, that are working to gain a more diverse economy and embrace change, he said.

While farmers are still able to out-produce what they’ve done in the last 10 years, farms are getting bigger, said Doug Sombke, South Dakota Farmers Union president and Groton area farmer.

“We don’t have the enthusiasm of planting like we had in the past,” he said. “We don’t have the enthusiasm of the young people, and for the last five years, finding extra help has probably been the biggest challenge for any farmer.”

Technology has played a part. Some of the machines, when programmed right, can almost run themselves, Sombke said. However, internet availability in the rural areas is an ongoing concern.

While farms are able to produce more — nearly 290 million more bushels of corn and more than 100 million more bushels of soybeans in South Dakota from 2012 to 2017 — farm operations also have to pay their bills.

South Dakota saw a more than $448 million drop in total commodity sales during that five-year period, according to the census. Brown County alone saw more than $143 million decline in commodity sales, even though the corn produced increased by 1.5 million bushels, and soybeans increased by 38 million bushels.

This drop comes despite a total commodity sales increase of $3.6 billion in South Dakota between 2007 and 2012.

One big reason for the rise and drop is weather, Sombke said. Commodity prices may also have something to do with it, he said.

On the positive side, the ag census shows the quality of the seed has increased and farmers have the ability to be as productive as they can, Sombke said.

“That’s the only choice we have,” he said. “We’re the price takers not the price makers.”