The conference, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture every three years, will be hosted by New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service.

“The conference brings together a broad range of people who work with small-scale farmers and ranchers around the nation,” said Edmund Gomez, executive director of Extension’s Rural Agricultural Improvement and Public Affairs Project (RAIPAP). “It’s an opportunity for them to discuss the challenges facing small-scale producers, share experiences and learn how to better help struggling farmers stay profitable.”

The event grew out of USDA efforts in the mid-1990s to improve services and assistance to small farms, said Denis Ebodaghe, national program leader for small farms at the USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service in Washington, D.C.

“Many farmers in this country are people with small-scale operations who struggle to stay afloat,” said Ebodaghe, conference chairman. “Together they make up the backbone of domestic agriculture. Rather than just survive, we want them to thrive in the 21st century.”

Small farms and ranches – defined as operations with less than $250,000 in gross annual sales – account for about 94 percent of all farms in the United States, according to a 1998 report by the USDA’s National Commission on Small Farms. Most small-scale farmers only earn about $23,000 in net cash income annually since production costs generally absorb more than 80 percent of gross sales, according to the report.

Given the low profits, the number of small farms is constantly shrinking. About 300,000 farms disappeared between 1978 and 1998, according to the report. In contrast, large-scale operations are getting bigger. In 1980, for example, four firms controlled 36 percent of beef slaughter nationally, but by 1998 those same four firms controlled nearly 82 percent of production, according to the report.

“Nationally, we’re losing about 50 small farms per day,” said Gomez, a member of the National Commission on Small Farms. “Farm commodity prices have not kept up with inflation, so farmers are paying much more in production costs while earning less for the goods they produce. It’s squeezing them out of business.”

Global competition and free trade have made it more difficult for small-scale farmers to compete with cheap agricultural imports, Gomez said. Moreover, modern technology, new seed varieties and better weed and insect controls have increased productivity, but higher yields have meant stable or declining prices.

“We’ve become too darn efficient,” Gomez said. “Economies of scale are making the large enterprises much more profitable than the smaller ones.”

In New Mexico, small farms account for about 94 percent of the state’s 15,000 farms, according to the USDA’s 1997 agriculture census. However, about 82 percent of the state’s farms earn less than $50,000 in gross annual sales, and three-fourths of those earn less than $10,000.

Despite the low returns, more than half of the state’s farmers say farming is their main source of income. “It’s critical that we find ways to support small-scale New Mexico farmers, because thousands of families depend on farm income to survive,” Gomez said. “Their activities also contribute to the economic well-being of our small rural communities. Every locally produced agricultural dollar rolls over 10 times in a small town.”

e-mail: Rsmith@primediabusiness.com