Farming in America

March 11th, 2020

My 11-year-old son announced a new career plan last year: he wants to be a farmer. Since his announcement, he has read up on plants and chickens and growing seasons. This winter he started a garden of his own.

This isn’t completely out of the blue, as my family does have some history in farming. My father grew up on a dairy farm in northern Wisconsin, tending a herd of about 80 cows and a couple hundred acres of cropland. Then he left for college and never came back. When I decided to attend a small experimental school in California, where students helped run an alfalfa farm and cattle ranch while taking classes, my father was dumbfounded. “When I was your age, I wanted to get off the farm,” he told me. Farming didn’t end up being my vocation — none of my grandparents’ 24 descendants were or are farmers  — but maybe my son will finally reverse the trend.

My father’s experience of leaving the farm isn’t an uncommon one. America’s farm population has declined for most of the 20th century, from about two in every five Americans in 1900 to just one in a hundred today. Nevertheless, the mystique of farming still endures. For people who grew up one or two generations removed from farm labor and rural life, it’s tempting to romanticize the farm not just as a way to make a living but also as a way to make a life. Farms bring to mind honest work, a connection to nature and a lifestyle conducive to both independence and a tightly knit community. Our cultural images of the “family farm” are modest in size and serve to knit generations together while anchoring small town businesses, churches, and schools. For many of us, it feels more authentic than working in an office-park cubicle just off the expressway.

Farming is something most of us have no idea how to do and no particular desire to do ourselves; but we want — no, we need — someone to be doing it. 

The struggle for family farming

Early in the life of the United States, many European immigrants arrived from countries where farm labor was primarily done by tenants or serfs and where farmland was primarily owned by large landowners. After the United States took the land of Native populations, much of it was distributed through the Homestead Act in small parcels rather than in giant plantations. This helped embed the pattern of modestly sized “family farms” in much of the Midwest and West.

Land ownership, however, was only one of the necessary pieces required to farm. Small farmers, however independent in theory, had to depend on banks for credit and railroads to transport their goods to market. Over the 19th century, monopolies drove up costs, financial panics destroyed savings and credit and fluctuating prices kept farmers vulnerable even in good years.

The Populist movement in the late 19th century sought to unite the interests of small farmers against the financial and transportation firms that had enormous power over rural life. National organizations like the Grange and the Farmer’s Union were formed to help small, independent farms lobby for their interests. Electricity came late to rural areas, advancing dramatically as a result of the New Deal and through rural electrical co-ops.

Over the last few decades, changes in both public policy and the economics of agriculture have driven farming in a much different direction, toward larger and larger operations that are in some ways more like industrial corporations than classic family farms. While most farms are still less than 500 acres, a huge majority of farmland is harvested by the relatively few farms that are bigger than 1,000 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 census.

While America’s sentimental images of family farming have stayed the same, the reality of agriculture has changed dramatically. Dairy operations like the one my father grew up on are far too small to be viable today. The cow-dotted pastures lining Wisconsin highways well into my childhood are rapidly emptying.

This trend is, in part, a question of economics. Farm equipment is expensive, requiring large amounts of credit, and often owners are prohibited by manufacturers from doing their own repairs. Seed suppliers and food companies leverage their market share to drive costs up and prices down. All of this works together to make small farms harder to sustain.

Beyond the sheer economics, demographics are also playing a role. Simply put, farmers are getting old. Smaller families mean there are fewer potential heirs for multigenerational farms. The grinding, twice-daily schedule of milking that doesn’t stop for anything makes plenty of dairy-farm kids eager to leave, and precious few nonfarm kids are willing to take it up. The entire finely wrought fabric of rural and small-town life — churches, schools, small businesses, local seed co-ops — has been dramatically altered by the transformation of what a successful farm looks like. 

The future of farming

Despite the massive consolidation and transformation of agriculture, my son’s enthusiasm for getting back to the farm is itself part of a growing trend. Several programs have emerged that connect retiring farmers to new farmers who might otherwise find it difficult to break into a land- and capital- intensive business. I was surprised to discover that the National FFA Organization (formerly Future Farmers of America) has chapters in my own highly diverse, fully developed suburb. Increasing interest in urban agriculture in cities around the country has given city-dwellers more opportunities to live and work in proximity to the sources of their food.

These green shoots, if you will, in the world of small farming don’t look much like the hardy pioneer images of days past. I certainly don’t envision heirloom tomatoes or a greenhouse-filled block in Detroit when I think of farming. But if there’s going to be a future for farming on a small scale, it will probably look more like those examples than the farm my grandparents owned. Some people argue that smaller, more local, more diversified production is exactly what our food system will need to be environmentally and socially sustainable into the future. Just like in the age of homesteading and rural electrification, we’ll have to decide together if that’s what we want, not just for the food we eat but also for the people who grow it. 

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