Michigan’s Agricultural Landscape


Michigan grows an incredible variety of crops each year and produces over 300 commodities, ranking the state’s agriculture industry as the 2nd most diverse in the nation, just behind California. Michigan’s commodity mix is made up of about 60% crops and 40% livestock. 

The state leads the nation in the production of several crops including dry beans, tart cherries, blueberries, squash, nine floriculture products (such as Easter lilies, geraniums, & petunias), and pickling cucumbers. Michigan also ranks in the top 10 for 63 other commodities. Some examples:

POTATOES: In volume and sales, potatoes are Michigan’s leading produce commodity generating $178.7 million in sales. In 2016, nearly 2 billion pounds of potatoes were harvested from the southwest corner of the state up through the Upper Peninsula. 

BLUEBERRIES: More than one-third of the blueberries eaten in the US are grown in Michigan. Leading the nation in highbush blueberry production, in 2016, the state produced nearly 110 million pounds, contributing $130.4 million to Michigan’s economy. 

APPLES: Michigan’s largest and most valuable fruit crop, apples provide a value of about $100 million annually to apple growers. Marketing and processing bring the total economic impact of apples to $700 million a year.

ASPARAGUS: Michigan ranks first in the nation for asparagus production with 23 million pounds grown annually. The total annual value is estimated at over $20.2 million.

CARROTS: Producing over 140 million pounds of carrots in 2016 made Michigan the 4th highest carrot producing state in the country. 

HOPS: As the fastest growing commodity crop in the state, Michigan ranks 4th in hop production in the country and 14th across the globe [i]. 

Michigan agriculture contributes $101 billion annually to the state’s economy[i]. Michigan’s food and agriculture system represents almost 20% of the state’s overall economic engine, making it the second largest industry in Michigan, providing over 923,000 jobs, or roughly a quarter of the state’s work force in 2012 [ii].

Additionally, multiple assessments of the food needs and productivity of the land suggest that Michigan has the capacity to feed itself with food grown in the state. 

Value of all agricultural products sold

Percent of land devoted to crops

Population density of livestock

Data source: USDA Census of Agriculture 2007   Image Source

Michigan’s agricultural diversity and abundance are also an outcome of the tremendous transformations American agriculture has undergone throughout 20th and 21st centuries. While these changes have benefited many, there have also been significant environmental, economic and social costs. To understand how these national trends affect Michigan farms today, let’s learn a bit more about the US agricultural system:

Jump to:   Overview of US Agriculture  |  Overview of Michigan Agriculture  |  FAIM Research & Small Farmers

Overview of US Agriculture in 15 Charts

Loss of Farms; Increasing Acreage

The number of farms in the country has fallen from more than 6.8 million in 1935 (when the population was ~100 million) to roughly 2 million in 2012 (with a population of more than 325 million). Because the amount of farmland has remained about the same as farms have decreased, the remaining farms have more acreage– on average, about 440 acres in 2016 versus 155 acres in 1935.  Averages can also mask extremes, as large farms now dominate crop production in the US – today most cropland is on farms with at least 1,100 acres, and many farms are 5 and 10 times that size [iii]. 

Farms, land in farms & average acres per farm, 1850-2016

For more information: Link

Loss of Farmers

In 1840, America’s economy was centered around agriculture, it was labor intensive, and it took place on many small, diversified farms in rural areas where more than half the US population lived. At that point in time, almost 70% of the American workforce worked in agriculture. By 2000, barely 2% of the American labor force worked in agriculture.

Distribution of labor force by sector, 1840-2010

For more information: Link

Outputs continue to rise as farms are increasingly more productive…

Innovations in technology, animal and crop genetics, chemicals, equipment, and farm organization have driven changes and fueled continuing output growth on farms across the US. As a result, even as the amount of land and labor used in farming declined, total farm output more than doubled between 1948 and 2015. As farming became increasingly mechanized and the use of chemicals grew following World War II, additional capital and technological investments were required.

US agricultural output, inputs & productivity, 1948-2014

For more information: Link

… Yet net farm income does not reflect farm productivity

Gross farm income reflects the total value of agricultural output plus government farm program payments. Net farm income reflects income from production in the current year and is calculated by subtracting farm production expenses from gross farm income.   

Gross farm income, production expenses & net farm income, 1950-2015F

For more information: Data from 1948-2015: Link

Data from 2000-2016: Link

Farmers increasingly dependent on commercial & synthetic inputs

Changes in productivity have been spurred by more large-scale, technically advanced, capital intensive, and structurally complex modes of farming.These vast changes have severely limited farmers’ decision making power and their ability to make a viable living. Willard Cochrane[iv] developed the Technological Treadmill to describe the ways in which, as farmers adopt new technologies and introduce new inputs (commercial seeds, synthetic pesticides & fertilizers), they become dependent on lenders, along with the seed and chemical corporations. As higher yields receive lower market prices, farmers then seek to expand their operations, even as their net revenues decline. The farms that can’t keep up the pace, fall off and are absorbed by other farms, while many struggle to keep up. While net farm incomes have stagnated (as seen in chart #4), the profits in these input industries, dominated by a few corporations, have increased dramatically. 

For more information: Link

Less crop diversity; more pesticide use

Conventional (or industrial) agricultural practices are characterized by: the use of high-yielding plant and animal varieties, large-scale monocrops, high stocking densities and confined animal feeding operations (CAFO), decreased or absent periods for land to lay fallow, high levels of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and high degrees of mechanization. As a result of the adoption of these practices, four crops (corn, hay, soybeans, and wheat) accounted for over 83% of harvested crop acres in 2007 [iii]

Additionally, researchers recently analyzed the total quantity of pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides) applied to the 21 crops between 1960 and 2008. They found that chemical use increased from 196 million pounds of pesticide active ingredients in 1960 to 632 million pounds in 1981 and then decreased slightly to 516 million pounds in 2008. Of the pesticide quantity applied to the 21 crops examined, corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat, and potatoes accounted for about 80% [v].

Maps: Crop diversity & pesticide use

For more information: Link to Map 1, Map 2; Charts 3-5: Link

The supply chain between farms and consumers is increasingly more complex…

If we follow the journey of a majority of the food items purchased in the US from farm to fork, the distance between the consumer and the farmer is mediated by a series of transnational corporations that buy, sell, and process farm products, along with a handful of retail chains that distribute and sell that food. This graphic depicts how the Dutch food system is similar to the US supply chain, illustrating the way in which the links in the chain have tightened as power has been concentrated with a few corporations, allowing them to wield enormous influence across the chain. For example, given Walmart’s control over 33% of US grocery retailing, they exploited suppliers, took advantage of taxpayer subsidies, and paid their workers extremely low wages. Tyson, because they controlled over 17% of US chicken, pork, and beef processing could pollute local land, and treat its farmers poorly, contributing to the decline of rural communities [vi]. It is through the monopolization of input industries, industrial farming, processing, and retailing, that these corporate monopolies are labeled by some as an industrial agrifood complex [vii].

Example food system supply chain

For more information: Link

… given the domination of various food sector industries by a handful of corporations

Economists generally agree that when four firms control more than 40% of a market, that structure confers market power to those firms (referred to as the CR4). As a result of mergers and acquisitions, between 1990 and 2011 almost all commodity sectors showed increases in the control of market shares by the top four firms [viii]. In 2007, four corporations owned 85% of the soybean processing industry, 82% of the beef packing industry, 63% of the pork packing industry, and manufactured about 50% of the milk, while five corporations controlled 50% of grocery retail [ix].

Food writer Tom Philpott described the impact of concentration on milk processing and small farms: “In 1972, the four largest milk processors controlled 17% of the market. By 2002, that figure had risen to 42%. And as the market consolidated, the few companies who controlled it quietly shuttered processing plants, concentrating production in ever-larger facilities. In 1972, there were 2,507 milk processing plants across the U.S. By 2002, only 524 remained. That’s an 80% drop in 30 years. And that means dairy farmers not only had fewer and fewer buyers for their product, but they also had to pay more to have their milk shipped to ever greater distances as nearby processing plants shut down. Over that same period in the US, small-scale, grass-based milk production for nearby markets essentially disappeared — and mass-scale, confinement dairy farming, reliant on corn, antibiotics, and hormones, took its place”[x].

Corporate consolidation & control

For more information: Link

Concentration hurts small-scale farmers

In 2010, 90.1% of all farms were small (based on sales) [xii]. When considering acreage, farms under 110 acres make up 66.4% of farms and hold 8.4% of cropland. Farms over 1,000 acres make up 5.6% of farms and hold 53.7% of cropland [iii]. Small-scale farmers growing fresh fruits and vegetables are at a particular disadvantage in highly concentrated markets. As Food & Water Watch’s analysis discusses: “The USDA has noted that national concentration measures understate the concentration that many farmers face in local and regional markets. The perishability of produce significantly exacerbates the impact of market concentration and gives buyers unique leverage over farmers who need to market their crops. The small number of retailers can leverage their buyer power over the many produce growers who are price takers because they have little bargaining power to market highly perishable produce before it spoils” [xi].

The size and distribution of crop farms, 2011

For more information: Link

Farmers are receiving less money for every consumer dollar spent on food 

The farm share is the share from each dollar that is received by farmers from the sales of raw food commodities. On average, US farmers received 14.8 cents for farm commodity sales from each dollar spent on domestically-produced food in 2016. The remaining 85.2 cents of every food dollar goes to off-farm costs including processing, packaging, transporting, wholesaling, trading, insurance, advertising and accounting. 

How much does the farmer get from your food dollar?

For more information: Data Link; Image Source; Farm Bureau Link

Small farms depend on off-farm income… 

Small farms often lose money, and their losses are financed by the off-farm incomes of the families that run them. Despite this, small farms with less than $350,000 in annual farm income make up almost 90% of all farms [xii] and they get almost all of their income from off-farm sources. Only a small percentage of all farms depend mainly on farm income for their livelihoods. In 2016, annual household income was over $360,000 for farm businesses that rely the most on farming for their income. These farms also receive the majority of federal farm subsidies. 

For more information: Link

… while farm subsidies go to the largest farm businesses

Two-thirds of the farm commodities sold in the U.S. come from just 100,000 farms. Government subsidies play a significant role in the ability of these large-scale farms to keep getting bigger. Of the top twenty US agricultural subsidy programs, 85.5% of funding goes to the top 20% of recipients [vi]. A recent USDA-ERS study showed that 1/3 of payments from commodity programs went to farms with at least $1 million in annual sales in 2015 (up from the 11% of payments these large farm businesses received in 1991). At the same time, the share of payments given to small farms has dropped: Despite the fact that these small farms make up 90% of the total number of farms, farms that make less than $350,000 in sales received 61% of payments in 1991, but only 30% in 2015 [xiii]. 

Charts: Distribution of government subsidies

For more information: Chart 1-Link; Chart 2-Link

Discrimination against farmers of color

In addition to the struggles facing farmers as outlined above, Black farmers have additionally faced discrimination, structural inequality, limited access to land, and indifference and hostility from the institutions that are supposed to assist them, mainly the USDA. Black farmers exited agricultural production at rates disproportionately higher than white farmers. Wood and Gilbert (2000) estimate a 98% loss of Black farm operations between 1900 and 1997, compared with a nearly 66% loss among white operations [xiv; xv].

In 1982 the US Commission on Civil Rights concluded that the USDA was the primary reason Black farmers continued to lose their land at such shocking rates. Minority farmers faced discrimination from USDA employees when applying for government subsidy programs, such as direct discouragement, delays in processing paperwork and high rejection rates. In 1981 for example, Black farmers received just 1.3% of all farm ownership loans, 2.8% of all farm operating loans, and 0.8% of all soil and water conservation program loans [xvi]. A class action lawsuit filed by Black farmers resulted in a settlement of $2.25 billion dollars. In January 2009, there were 14,000 administrative civil rights cases pending at USDA and no formal processes established to provide pathways to justice for USDA customers. Additional suits have been brought against the USDA, where a settlement with Native American farmers totaled $760 million, and suits by Hispanic and women farmers motivated the USDA to provide $1.3 billion in additional funds for these claimants [xvii].

Number of farms with Black or African American operators, 2012

For more information: Link

Environmental Impacts of Conventional Agriculture

Conventional agriculture has tremendous negative impacts on the environment and biodiversity, is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and is not sustainable. Increasing temperatures due to climate change will only exacerbate these problems, as higher temperatures reduce crop yields, and extreme weather conditions fuel topsoil depletion and runoff pollution. 

Conventional agricultural production practices, which are supported by food and agriculture policy like the US Farm Bill, are major contributors to global climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and EPA, the agricultural sector is the largest contributor to global anthropogenic non-CO2 GHGs, accounting for 56% of emissions in 2005 [ix].

The United States produces nearly $330 billion per year in agricultural commodities. This productivity is vulnerable to direct impacts on crops and livestock from changing climate conditions and extreme weather events, and indirect impacts through increasing pressures from pests and pathogens [xviii].

The dominant system of industrial agriculture is not the only way. The majority of farms in this country (and across the globe) are small. Agricultural ecology–farming practices performed in a way that accounts for the ecological interactions that occur on farms and that support natural ecosystem services, is a means of embracing farming as an important component of climate mitigation and adaptation [xix].

For more information: Report-Link; Website-Link

Agriculture & public health

Conventional agricultural practices can have harmful effects on the people working in the system as well as surrounding communities:

— Industrial hog producers often raise many thousands of animals in confinement houses that are designed to vent toxic gases and particles into the environment, affecting the health and quality of life of the surrounding communities. A 2014 study of over 2,000 industrial hog operations in North Carolina found that they are disproportionately located near communities of color[xx]. Furthermore, in a clear demonstration of environmental racism, these operations are also more likely to be in areas that had a high density of slave populations in the 1860s, demonstrating the way in which historic denials of basic human rights are replicated in current agricultural landscapes and practices [xxi].

— Approximately 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops each year. Farmworkers are routinely exposed to these toxic pesticides in the fields where they work, as well as where they live, often due to pesticide drift. Pesticide exposure leads to chronic health problems, such as cancer, infertility, neurological disorders, and respiratory conditions [xxii].

— An assessment of the relationship between agricultural structure and community well-being in 2008 found that industrial farming had detrimental effects on communities in 82% of 51 studies considered. Negative impacts included: greater income inequality, decreased retail trade and diversity of retail firms, population declines, and negative health effects of large livestock operations [xxiii].

For more information: Links to Map 1 & Map 2

Overview of Michigan Agriculture


With this understanding of the national context, the FAIM Project team analyzed the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture data in order to better understand the context of farming in Michigan by exploring: farm size and type, farmer demographics, farm income and off-farm work, and farm subsidy payments:  

Farm Type     

A majority of the 52,194 farms operating in Michigan –88.9%– are small family farms, as categorized by the USDA (with gross cash farm income under $350,000) 

Small family farms also make up a majority of the farms selling direct-to-consumer (most often via farmers markets or CSAs) 

– USDA-defined large-scale family farms operate 3% of Michigan farms but have 27% of the land in farms

– Combined, mid-size + large-scale farms operate 8.3% of the farms but have 47% of the land in farms

– Small family farms, 88.9% of farms in the state, hold 46% of the land in farms in the state

Farm Size




While the average farm size across the state is 191 acres, averages tend to mask skewed data, and in the case of all the farms in the state, 36% are between 10-49 acres. There is even more variation in acreage when you look within the USDA-defined farm typologies.  

For example: while the average acreage for a small farm with low sales is 104 acres, 44% are between 1-49 acres. And while the average acreage for a very large farm is 3148 acres, more than 50% are over 2000 acres.

Farmer Demographics

– Between 2007 and 2012, Michigan agriculture gained 49 farmers between the ages of 25 and 34, and lost 3,250 farmers between 45 and 54.

– In 2012, in Michigan the number of farmers over 65 (16,014) outnumbered farmers under 35 (2,980) by a margin of over 5 to 1.

– Farmers over 55 in Michigan have 60% of the land in farms in the state.

The vast majority of farmers of color in Michigan –93.7%– farmed on small family farms in 2012

95.5% of all Hispanic/Latino farmers in the state of Michigan farm on small farms across the state.

Off-Farm Work


Less than half the farmers in the state actually farm as their primary occupation:
– 48.4% list farming as their primary occupation, whereas 51.6% have an off-farm job as their primary occupation

However, this is not consistent across farm type:
76.4% of small farmers work off-farm as their primary occupation,

– whereas only 8.5% of mid-size farms work off-farm, and

– 4.3% of large farms list off-farm jobs as their primary occupation.

Market Value & Farm Income


Nationally, the average annual market value for farms operated by African American farmers in 2012 was $36,052. The national average for white US farmers was $190,631.

In Michigan, the average annual market value for farms operated by African American farmers in 2012 was $35,384. The state average for white Michigan farmers was $166,952.


In Michigan, the average market value for products sold on large farms was $1.9 million in 2012 and was over $11 million dollars on very large farms.

The average market value of products sold for small farms was: 

  • $19,767 Small-retirement
  • $19,979 Small-off farm
  • $34,841 Small-low sales 
  • $242,287 Small-moderate  


In Michigan, the average net cash farm income of operators of large farms in 2012 was $568,979 for large farms and over $2 million for very large farms.

The average net cash farm income of operators of small farms in 2012 was:

  • $1,635 small-retirement
  • -$490 small-off-farm
  • -$726 small-low sales
  • $69,472 small-moderate

FAIM Research & Small Farmers


Recognizing the challenges facing farmers across the country, as well as the landscape of farming in Michigan, the FAIM Project team set out to speak with small farmers across the state.

Between November 2013 and March 2015, the FAIM Project team conducted 23 focus groups with 114 farmers. Within these conversations, we were curious to learn: 

Where are small farmers currently selling their products?


Where would they like to be selling their products?


Any barriers or challenges they’ve encountered in trying to sell in particular locations?


How can more of the food they grow can make its way onto the plates of people who need it in the state, in ways that are also financially viable for their farm business? 

FAIM farmer focus group participants

We are currently analyzing the stories shared with us by small farmers across the state and cannot wait to share our results with you — check back soon!


[i] MDARD (2016) Michigan Agriculture Facts and Figures. Link: https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mdard/MI_Ag_Facts__Figures_474011_7.pdf

[ii] Knudson & Peterson (2012) The Economic Impact of Michigan’s Food and Agriculture System [MSU Strategic Marketing Institute Working Paper] Link: http://www.canr.msu.edu/productcenter/uploads/files/MSUProductCenter2012EconomicImpactReport1.pdf

[iii] MacDonald JM, Penni K, Hoppe RA. (2013) Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Crop Farming. USDA-ERS. Link: https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/45108/39359_err152.pdf?v=41526

[iv] Cochrane, Willard W. 1958. Farm Prices: Myth and Reality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.[v] Fernandez-Cornejo J, et al (2014). Pesticide Use in U.S. Agriculture: 21 Selected Crops, 1960-2008, EIB-124, USDA-ERS. Link: https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/43854/46734_eib124.pdf

[vi] Howard, P (2016) Concentration and power in the food system: Who controls what we eat? London: Bloomsbury. Link: https://philhoward.net/2017/05/11/latest-book/

[vii] Holt-Giménez & Peabody (2008) From Food Rebellions to Food Sovereignty: Urgent call to fix a broken food system [Food First backgrounder] Link: https://foodfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/BK14_1-spring-2008-Food-Rebellions.pdf 

[viii] Hendrickson, James & Heffernan (2013) Vertical Integration and Concentration in US Agriculture. Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics. Link:  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304115789_Vertical_Integration_and_Concentration_in_US_Agriculture

[ix] Ayazi & Elsheikh (2016). The U.S. Farm Bill: Corporate power and structural racialization in the United
States food system. Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. Link: https://haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/global-justice/glocal-food-systems/farm-bill-report-corporate-power-and-structural-racialization-us-food-system

[x] Philpott (2007) Even USDA researchers are a bit creeped out by corporate control of food, Grist. Link: https://grist.org/article/not-entirely-usda-approved/

[xi] Food and Water Watch (2014) In re: to Proposed Albertsons-Safeway Supermarket Merger. [Public comment] Link: https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/sites/default/files/albertsons_safeway_merger_comment.pdf 

[xii] Hoppe & MacDonald (2013) Updating the ERS Farm Typology, EIB-110, USDA-ERS. Link: https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details?pubid=43744

[xiii] McFadden & Hoppe. (2017) Evolving Distribution of Payments From Commodity, Conservation, and Federal Crop Insurance Programs, EIB-184, USDA-ERS. Link: https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=85833

[xiv] Green JJ, et al. (2011) “From the Past to the Present: Agricultural Development and Black Farmers in the American South.” Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability, edited by Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman, MIT Press, pp. 47–64. JSTOR. Link: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vjpc1

[xv] Wood & Gilbert (2000) Re-entering African American farmers: Recent trends and a policy rationale. Review of Balck Political Economy 27(4):43-64. Link: https://www.landloss.org/Wood%20–%20Returning.pdf

[xvi] United States Commission on Civil Rights (1982). The decline of black farming in America: a report. Washington, D.C.: The Commission.Link:  http://www.federationsoutherncoop.com/pigford/research/US%20Commission%20on%20Civil%20Rights%201982.pdf[

[xvii] Vilsack (2016) The People’s Department: A new era for civil rights at the USDA. Medium. Link: https://medium.com/usda-results/https-medium-com-usda-results-chapter-8-b57f91b64d49

[xviii] Melillo, Richmond, & Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program Link: nca2014.globalchange.gov

[xix] Vandermeer et al (2018) Feeding Prometheus: An Interdisciplinary Approach for Solving the Global Food Crisis. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 2:39. Link: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2018.00039/full

[xx] Wing & Johnston (2014)  Industrial Hog Operations in North Carolina Disproportionately Impact African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians. Link: http://www.ncpolicywatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/UNC-Report.pdf

[xxi] Orlando, L. (March 19, 2015) “The legacy of slavery: What inequality and industrial hog operations have in common.” In These Times. Link: http://inthesetimes.com/rural-america/entry/17771/what-industrial-hog-operations-and-inequality-have-in-common

[xxii] Farmwoker Justice (2013) Exposed and ignored: How pesticides are endangering our nation’s farmworkers. Link: https://www.farmworkerjustice.org/sites/default/files/aExposed%20and%20Ignored%20by%20Farmworker%20Justice%20singles%20compressed.pdf

[xxiii] Lobao & Stofferahn (2008) The community effects of industrialized farming: Social science research and the challenges of corporate farming laws. Agriculture and Human Values, 25(2), 219-240. Link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10460-007-9107-8