South Dakota produces $9.4 billion dollars worth of farm receipts spread across 31,800 farms in 2011. Just over half this amount is from livestock. Cattle make up about half of all livestock receipts. Other livestock such as sheep, goats, turkeys, chickens and horses make up the other half. Of field crops corn is the most important with forty percent of all corn going to ethanol production from 15 plants located mostly in eastern S.D which produces the most corn. These facilities produced over one billion gallons of ethanol last year. (Statistics from S.D. Department of Agriculture)
All is not well in farm and ranch country despite the value of all crops. Farmers are an aging population. The average age for those whose principle occupation is farming is 60.2 years, which means that about half of all farmers are older than this. This aging population is not being replaced by a younger generation of farmers at the same rate at which farmers are leaving agriculture. From 1980 until 2011 the rural population of S.D. actually declined by 1,000 people while the urban population grew by 134,000.
The result is that there are fewer farms now than any time since Homesteading in the 19th Century, but those farms are also larger than any time in history. Used to be that a 120 acre farm could support a family of six people, but that is not possible today. With fewer farms and fewer people living in rural areas, the small towns across the state are shrinking, and in some cases disappearing all together. Rural institutions, such as schools, hospitals, police, and fire, are increasingly having to consolidate to serve a dwindling population. Should these trends continue some, such as Frank J. Popper, who teaches in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and his wife Deborah Popper have suggested that this state become a buffalo commons once again in their 1987 article, The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust, published in Planning. While I doubt that will come to pass, there are other negative predictions that extreme depopulation can bring. The rural areas of the Great Plains may become a host to roaming bands of outlaws who are able to hide in the vast expanse of mostly empty land lacking any local law enforcement.
The agricultural land will continue to be farmed in this bleak, depopulated future. Already under construction in Fargo, N.D. are huge, powerful tractors that need no operator. They are computer controlled and can accurately run farm equipment in a field to an inch or less, and they can be moved anywhere following a pilot vehicle. Controlled from the Internet by their corporation to do all work from tillage to harvest, these machines now cost about one third as much as current manned tractors. These machines are still in developmental stages, but their widespread application can not be far in the future. Both declining farm population and economics favor their becoming common.
I'm not sure how many years we will have fall harvest scenes like those pictured above. Perhaps we are now seeing the end of an era in agriculture, and are about to enter a brave new world of computer driven farm machinery controlled from the corporate offices of large vertically integrated agricultural corporations which produce most all of our food and fiber. This is not good news about the quality of our food or the use of our land.