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South Dakota Bucks Population and Farm Trends… But Where’d Those Voters Go?

Unlike bees, human populations in South Dakota aren't collapsing. Northern Plains News reports a turnaround in population trends in South Dakota, with a majority of South Dakota counties seeing growth between 2010 and 2012.

from John Cromartie, "Nonmetro Areas as a Whole Experience First Period of Population Loss," USDA Economic Research Service, 2014.05.06
from John Cromartie, "Nonmetro Areas as a Whole Experience First Period of Population Loss," USDA Economic Research Service, 2014.05.06

Note that West River is almost all blue, meaning growth, driven by higher birth rates among Indians, higher in-migration thanks to the Bakken boom up north, and higher rates of folks wanting to live near that hunky Larry Rhoden fellow. The tan decline areas are mostly among the non-metro James River Valley counties, which reflects the overall conclusion of this USDA report showing that, for the first time, the non-metro portion of the U.S. (72% of our land area) lost population.

NPN reports that South Dakota is bucking another national demographic trend: we've got more farms! Between 2007 and 2012, South Dakota sprouted 820 more farms, a 2.6% increase to 31,989. That's still 14% fewer farms than we had in 1982, but it's an increase that means more individuals in business for themselves growing food. And it beats the continuing national consolidation of farms: over the same five years that South Dakota added farms, the U.S. lost 100,000 farms, a 4.5% drop.

The growth in South Dakota is coming largely from small farms:

size (acres) 2012 2007 change
1 to 9 1,300 920 380
10 to 49 4,976 3,898 1,078
50 to 179 6,419 5,909 510
180 to 499 5,353 5,874 -521
500 to 999 4,229 4,714 -485
1000 to 1999 4,075 4,362 -287
2000+ 5,637 5,492 145
Total 31,989 31,169 820

Almost 1,460 new farms smaller than 50 acres! Small farms saw 41% growth in the 1-to-9-acre category, 28% growth in the 10-to-49-acre category. That's a lot of new small businesses. That gain was offset only by apparent consolidation of a lot of bigger farms. We lost just about 1,300 farms between 180 and 1,999 acres, with a small increase in the largest farms of 2,000 acres or more.

Alas, not growing in South Dakota: Democrats... and voters in general:

GOP Dem Ind Total Reg
May 4, 2010 233,347 194,642 82,071 512,125
May 1, 2014 235,838 175,406 96,547 509,629
diff 2,491 -19,236 14,476 -2,496
%change 1.1% -9.9% 17.6% -0.5%

We can't tell from the official numbers whether Democrats have swelled the Independent ranks or if Dems have simply checked out and new voters have leaned Indy. But the voter registration totals show that over the last four years, in a period when we've enjoyed at least 3.8% population growth, we've seen a slight drop in the number of people willing to participate in the democratic process.

Sounds like I'd better go find those new farmers and sign them up to vote!


  1. Susan 2014.05.21

    I also wonder how many of those Democrats may have changed their party affiliation to vote in Republican primaries. I know I did - so that I could vote against the "tea party" candidates to try to keep our already one party lopsided legislature a bit more sane (or rational).

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.05.21

    That's a wonder worth having, Susan! Certainly some Dems have switched this spring. But the Dem slide has been happening since 2009, when Dems hit a peak of 206K. There was a tiny decline of about 900 Dems around primary time in 2010, but that number kept creeping down after that primary and didn't recover until election time, after which it went back to sliding. The slide from this January to May is about 1,330 voters, less than a 1% difference. So if GOP primary fun is afoot, it's only a small factor in a much larger, ongoing decline.

  3. Testor15 2014.05.21

    We must have a fully State Democratic Party first to win elections. To win elections people must feel included and important to register. 'Our' party is owned by a few people who tell the managers what to do.

  4. Douglas Wiken 2014.05.21

    Mostly the Democratic Party gets the message on what not to do....mostly not running full candidate slates and hammering on issues instead of a barrage of fundraising with no specific reasons for contributing work or money.

  5. Danno 2014.05.21

    More farms,

    Ha! Those are small farms being broken into Ranch-ettes, folks just squeezing into the acreage size to avoid property taxes.

    There were some big debates about that in the Rapid area over the past couple years.

  6. Richard Schriever 2014.05.21

    Yeah, but in a town or township of 40 residents, an increase of just two people = a 5% population increase. In areas that are already sparsely populated, what are actually very small insignificant changes in population may appear to be STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT.

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.05.21

    That is a fair question, Danno: how many of those new farms are active farms, and how many are just growing some trees to qualify for that cheaper ag land status?

    Doug, Testor, can we ever make people feel included and get them to bring their sweat and dollars back?

  8. Danno 2014.05.21


    I would make a very large bet that the downward trend in (real) farms continues, and that wealthy retirees are using the situation here for tax (evasion) purposes. Those new farms are retired people just barely meeting the requirements for farm status, and having their relatives fly in for holidays. They will inherit more the way we're set up.

    At risk of sounding like Romney, I'd bet you a grand that's it. I'll win too.

    Nuff said.

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