Editor's note: This is the seventh article in a 10-part series.
MEXICO — On Becker Family Farms in central Audrain County, the transition of ownership from one generation to another two years ago was also the time to specialize in crop production.
With their uncle retiring, Ross Becker and his brother Thad Becker were faced with the choice of maintaining the operation as it was, with cattle grazing in pastures and fields of corn and soybeans, or investing purely in cropland as they purchased the family farm to operate it with their father, Dennis. The pastureland, which was leased, was for sale at the same time.
"We couldn't buy him out as well as all the ground at the same time, so we decided to buy some of the row crop ground that was for sale and let the pasture go," Ross Becker said.
Many farmers have made that choice over the past 40 years. As the total number of farms decrease and the average size increases, fewer farmers are raising both crops and livestock. While most pronounced in pork production — the number of hog producers has fallen 97 percent and the average herd size has increased 14-fold in eight counties in central Missouri — it is also happening in cattle and grain.
Becker has been working for his father and uncle since he was a boy and as he was growing up his family raised hogs, cattle and field crops. They got out of the hog business about six years ago, when their contract with MFA to produce pork ended and they found their aging barn, which could house about 400 hogs, was too small, he said.
"We didn't want to invest money on building a big house, so we got out of it," Becker said.
Becker and his brother may have made the right choice. They farm on 1,400 acres, raising corn and soybeans. Much of Audrain County is well suited to crop production on expanses of land flattened by glaciers in the last Ice Age.
It is also a place where farm consolidation and specialization is well underway. From 1978 to 2017, the number of farms in Audrain County declined 32 percent and the average size increased 45 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture.
Taken every five years, the data for 2017 was released in April. Farms in Audrain County had the highest sales and the highest net farm income in the eight-county-region that also includes Boone and its immediate neighbors, Callaway, Cole, Cooper, Howard, Moniteau, and Randolph.
Over the past nine months, GateHouse Media gathered statistics and conducted interviews about life in eight counties of Central Missouri — Audrain, Boone, Callaway, Cole, Cooper, Howard, Moniteau and Randolph — and how things have changed over the past 20 to 50 years. For agriculture, there is an increasing divide between producers who want to work on smaller plots, raising food for local markets, and those who are raising livestock in concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, or planting genetically engineered hybrids.
Largely on the rapid growth around Columbia consuming land previously devoted to pasture and crops, there are fewer farmers than 40 years ago and the average farm in Boone County is smaller than 40 years ago. There are no CAFOs in Boone County, the only county in the region with planning and zoning regulations, while Audrain has the most, according to Department of Natural Resources records.
Politically, the Missouri legislature is on the side of the large producers and increased production from specialized operations like CAFOs. This year the General Assembly passed, and Gov. Mike Parson — himself a cattle producer — signed, a bill barring local jurisdictions from enacting stricter controls on CAFOs than state law.
The bill overruled regulations enacted in 20 rural counties, including Howard, Cooper and Callaway, intended to make CAFOs more responsible for their waste and push their buildings farther away from adjoining property.
Losses and Gains
Missouri, with 95,320 producers, is second only to Texas in the total number of farms and most remain family owned.
The changing nature of farming includes changes in which land is available for production. The biggest loss is in wooded pasturelands used to graze cattle, said Bob Garino, a Missouri state statistician for USDA.
"We're not losing our good cropland, but we are losing a lot of this pastureland," he said. "There's been a lot of land lost in the south central part of the state, a lot of pastureland."
In the eight-county region, less pasture means fewer large cattle operations, those selling more than 1,000 head per year. Only Randolph County, with five such operations, had more in 2017 than 10 years earlier, when there were four. Where there were 13 in Cooper County in 2007, only one remained in 2017.
Longer term, there were almost 2,700 fewer farms in the eight-county region of central Missouri reporting sale of cattle in 2017 than in 1978.
Another reason for the shift could be the loss of local markets.
When Tom Groves, an Audrain County cattle farmer, first started his cattle operation in 1980, he could sell his stock in Mexico. The sale barn is now closed.
"The livestock market here in town used to be one of the biggest livestock markets back in the 80s. I now take my cattle to Bowling Green. That's 60 some miles away from here," Groves said. "(The) majority of cattle producers are in south Missouri.
Cattle operations are also more labor intensive than row crop farms. And the workload has grown to prevent disease and as regulations on treatment of animals has changed. Calves could be put straight on a bottle, rather than weaned, when he started.
"They all (cattle) have to be vaccinated, boostered, cut with a knife, no horns," Groves said. "They have to be poured and then I have to wean them for 45 days. I have to tag them with a Missouri state veterinary tag or through a MFA health check."
There are 22 percent fewer farms statewide than in 1978, but the loss in the region has been far less, only about 6 percent. While the average farm has grown by 15 percent, the regional average size has declined slightly, in part because 200,000 fewer acres are in use, land consumed by growth and purchased to give more room for water after the 1993 Missouri River flood.
The farm census can be a snapshot of how two variables, weather and markets, both largely out of farmers’ control, can affect their livelihood. In 2017, Missouri farmers had their second-best corn crop ever and a very good soybean crop. Prices were near long-term averages and the good yields resulted in $443.5 million crop sales for the eight-county region.
Five years earlier, when the drought of 2012 brought the second-worst corn yields on record and soybeans giving 20 bushels an acre less than 2017, prices were astronomical, up to $8 a bushel for corn and $18 for beans. But with little to sell, crops from the eight-county region brought only $288.5 million.
Corn and soybean production has increased rapidly over the past 20 years, largely due to the introduction of new varieties.
"The leaps and bounds of seed genetics over the last 10 to 15 years is better than what we've seen in the last 50," said Mike Sharpe, certified general appraiser and seed dealer with Sharpe Ag Services Inc. of Laddonia.
The census won’t be taken again until 2022, so it will miss last year’s drought and this year’s floods. That doesn’t mean the farmers will miss them.
"Beans last year were really good, but corn was pretty poor," Becker said. "We had a dry spell through the summer that corn, kind of about time it was coming mature, needed some rain and didn't do real well. The beans were later coming on so they yielded pretty good last year."
Even where river floods haven’t covered fields, the heavy rain that has produced the high water is putting planting far behind schedule.
Through June 3, only 69 percent of planned corn was planted statewide, compared to 97 percent on a five-year average, according to the Agricultural Statistical Service weekly report. Only 18 percent of soybeans were in the ground, compared to 63 percent on five-year average.
"The biggest issue (this year) is getting things in the ground," Becker said.
For most of the past four years, residents near proposed CAFOs, first in Callaway and later in Cooper County, have worked to prevent large new sow breeding barns from being built in their neighborhoods.
While those two new operations have made headlines, there are 56 others in operation in the eight-county region of central Missouri. Only Boone and Howard counties have no CAFOs, while Audrain County has the most, with 27 permits.
CAFO regulations measure "animal units," with beef cattle, for example, counting as one animal unit and equal to 2.5 hogs weighing 55 pounds or 10 pigs weighing less than that amount.
Of the regional permits, 40 are identified in state regulations as IC CAFOs, allowing for 2,500 to 7,499 hogs or 10,000 to 29,999 pigs or a combination of the two. The Tipton East operation in southern Cooper County that generated enough controversy for the county Health Center Board to pass new regulations is an IC operation.
The Callaway Farrowing CAFO in western Callaway County will be an IB operation, allowing 7,500 to 17,499 hogs 55 pounds or larger or 30,000 to 69,999 pigs under that weight. There are seven other IB operations in the eight-county region, four in Randolph County, one in Callaway County and three in Moniteau County.
Defenders of CAFOs argue that they are necessary to produce the food demanded by urban consumers at a reasonable price. Don Nikodim, vice president of the Missouri Pork Association, said it is better for the animals.
"When I grew up we grew pigs outside," Nikodim said. "They were exposed to Mother Nature. This year was particularly nasty to deal with that. If you're a pig outside now living in this, you're in all kinds of rain and mud. Most pigs today are raised in environmentally controlled buildings. They keep the pigs warm in winter, cool in summer."
The problem with many new CAFO applications, said Brian Smith of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, is that the people actually working there are not owners. Both the Callaway Farrowing and Tipton East operations are owned by out-of-state companies.
"They simply are just trying to extract what they can from those communities," Smith said. "They’ll buy feed, equipment elsewhere. They strike these larger deals because they have farms in multiple states and what not. That really takes away from our rural communities and causes them to go into a decline."
The political winds favor CAFO operators and the issue splits lawmakers along party lines. All the Republican lawmakers who represent central Missouri counties voted in favor of the bill barring local governments from regulating CAFOs more strictly than the state and it was sponsored by a regional lawmaker, Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City.
State Rep. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, said her constituents want consistent rules.
"You can’t have different regulations on one piece of your land, and then have something entirely different on the same contiguous piece of land," she said. "We must have consistency, and that’s what (the bill) does."
Multiple lawsuits are underway challenging the new operations, including a challenge to the Cooper County health ordinance which would limit where liquid manure from CAFO operations could be spread.
Another bill filed by State Rep. Kent Haden, R-Mexico, also would have limited inspection authority of animal operations to state and federal inspectors. The only county-level inspection agency would have been county sheriff departments. That bill, however, did not make it to Parson’s desk.
The legislative support for CAFOs puts the interests of a handful of large producers over the interests of other farmers and the public, Smith said.
"We have just under 100,000 farmers and that’s what’s maddening about some of the legislation that we see passed and also attempted," he said. "In reality we have about 500 CAFOs in this state. Less than one-half of 1% of the total farms, yet look how much agriculture policy, especially at our state level, is geared toward that model."
The legislation was supported by the Missouri Cattlemen's Association along with Missouri Farm Bureau, Missouri Corn Growers and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.
But Groves, who is a former Audrain County Commissioner, said the increase in hog operations has left a bad taste in his mouth.
"Everyone is concerned about air quality, water quality," he said.
Challenges and change
One of the biggest challenges facing farming is the age of producers. Since 1978, according to USDA, the average age of producers has increased each year.
In 1978 average age was 50 in Missouri and in 2017 it was 59.
Nikodim said CAFO production is attracting younger producers, which is good for farming overall.
"Pig farming allows for young farmers to come back and join an existing operation without having to add a bunch more land," Nikodim said. "If you've got a cropping operation and you can't afford to pay the high price for some of the land, you can build hog buildings and set in place a revenue source so you can have funds for your family and use the nutrients that come from the pigs to put back on the corn and soybean fields."
For additional income, Becker works as a diesel engine mechanic for International. This means farming, plus his day job, makes for long days. Many younger farmers are also working off the farm, he said.
"There's a good portion that are doing the same thing for about five to 10 years and eventually have been able to quit their job and go full time (on the farm)," he said.
One reason farmers are looking at second jobs while they find a main focus for their farm is increasing costs. This includes health care and farm equipment, said Mary Sobba, a University of Missouri Extension Field Specialist in Agriculture Business.
"A new truck in 1970 would cost $5,000. Now it's more like $50,000. It's a different landscape," she said.
Becker couldn't be considered a young farmer by USDA standards as he is 37, but would be considered a new and beginning producer since he's been a lead producer for only about two years. USDA considers farmers younger than 35 to be young producers and farms with 10 years or fewer in production as new and beginning.
Despite row crop farms skewing older with its producers, livestock, particularly hog farming, has more young farmers.
Other groups in Missouri also are working to encourage younger generations to return to the farm, such as Missouri Farm Bureau, whose president in Audrain County is Clarissa Cauthorn.
"I make the joke a lot that I'm the youngest person on our board, but not anymore," she said. "It is going to take people under 35 that are bringing children to this community. So, I've tried to pull in more young folks to be more involved in our young farmers and ranchers."
Farmer ages will have to start trending younger. The first year USDA started tracking young farmers and new and beginning farms was 2017. Before that, the department looked at the average age of all farmers.
USDA will now be able to better parse age trends with future agriculture censuses. The next census will be conducted in 2022, with data released in 2023. This is when trends will start to show — increasing or decreasing numbers of young farmers.
Crop and livestock prices respond quickly to global conditions, whether it is weather impacts on crops in Argentina or Brazil or the Midwest. Despite the likelihood of lost production this year, the ongoing trade dispute with China has cut soybean prices by more than 15 percent since last year.
At the same time, an epidemic of swine fever in China and Vietnam has greatly increased the demand for U.S. pork in spite of the trade issues. Hogs are bringing 30 percent more this year, up almost $15 per 100 pounds, but the benefits are going to the tiny number of remaining producers.
The cost of seed, much of which is patented, genetically modified hybrids, is increasing. With low crop prices, farmers count on the increased yields of the patented seeds to generate cash.
Tractors, including planters and harvesting equipment use GPS to keep a straight line in a field. Many also are autonomous, with no driver. Parameters are set for where the tractor will do its work and then a producer will push a button to run the programmed route.
"It sounds lazy, but the reason behind it is you're not overlapping. There's no wasting seed, wasting fuel," Becker said.
The extra equipment can be costly but the savings can also add up quickly, said University of Missouri Ag Systems Management Program Director Leon Schumacher.
GPS guidance makes farming more precise, so plantings and input applications don’t overlap.
"Today we're using a lot different systems to plant with, that acre is costing anywhere from $100 to $150 and even $200 for every acre you plant," Schumacher said. "If you have overlap issues over the course of a 10-hour day, it doesn't take long to sort out it's more than $1,000 (due to extra seed planting)."
Another thing farmers will need is access to broadband internet. Some rural areas, like Moniteau County, have top-rated speeds because of the investment of the CoMo Electric Cooperative. Others are following suit but a big gap remains between speeds in many rural areas and the service available in cities.
"Often times, I end up driving from home, which is 15 miles out of town, to McDonald's to send an email because my internet is kind of wishy-washy. It's 10 times better than what it used to be, but again when I talk about small rural communities growing, we have to have that opportunity for our community to grow," Cauthorn said.
Equipment technology is going to advance in the next 20 year, Schumacher said. The only way a farmer will be able to advance with it is if they have the internet infrastructure to support it.
"Broadband infrastructure would be a blessing," Cauthorn said. "We talk about fiber being the golden standard because as soon as you put things out in the electronic world, it seems like they're obsolete. Fiber gives us that opportunity to get enough gigs to do a lot of things that people are doing on their daily chores on the farm."