Minnesota Farmer

Where have all the farmers gone
August 11, 2010, 7:30 am
Filed under: Ag education, Ag promotion, Farm, food | Tags: , , ,

I hear many city people complaining that farming has gotten too big, that mega farms abound and we have no small farms left.  In some ways that is true. In the 1930s, about 25% of the country’s population resided on the nation’s 6,000,000 farms. By 1997, 157,000 farms accounted for 72% of farm sales, with only 2% of the U.S. population residing on farms.  Yet when you dig into the facts, the average farm in the U.S. is still under 500 acres, a size that is not mega.

At one time every square mile section of the prairie grain belt states had 3 or 4 farm families, now it is hard to find more than 1 family per section, and they may not even farm the land near them.  Where have all the farmers gone.

The answer goes back to WWII.  Before the war, we had some machinery on farms but it was mostly small and was sized to match the horses they replaced.  As America mechanized for war the capability of our country to make large machinery grew as did the wages paid in the city.  When the boys came home they found that the hard life on the farm was being made easier by farm machinery, and they took hold of the new life with gusto.  However, many returning farm boys found that life on the farm was tame and quiet compared to the excitement they had found overseas.  They also found that city life paid better.

As America geared up to provide food and machinery for a war ravaged world, wages at factories increased.  It was possible to make many times more money in town than it was on the farm.  Our farms were producing much more food than we could eat, and prices for farm products were decreasing.  To make a living on the farm you had to take advantage of the economies of scale.  You had to get big, or get out.

Getting out was easy.  Manufacturing jobs were paying as much as $30 per hour while on the farm  prices for grains barely covered expenses.  In town you had a no risk, life was easy and afforded you cars, boats and large houses.  In the country it was hard work and a reliance on government hand outs to keep the farm from going under.  The increase in farm size and farm equipment costs meant most farmers were highly leveraged, the bank owned nearly everything.  When the farm crisis of the 1980’s came, along with interest rates that topped 20% at one time, many farmers just walked away from it all.

Those left on the farm took advantage of the availability of farm land and increased their production, most often by renting land from widows or heirs of farmers.  In the prairies, where large tracts of flat land made large machinery possible, farm size increased as farm families took advantage of the terrain and technology.

Today in America we spend less than 10% of our income on food.  Less than 17 cents of that food dollar actually makes it to the farm.  For every $1 earned in the U.S. only about 1.7 cents actually goes to pay the farmer for the food we eat.  It’s no wonder that we have no farmers left.  We expect them to provide us with the bread and wine for our table and yet value them so little that we are not willing to pay them in the proportion to their importance.

The next time you wonder why food costs you so much, stop and think about how little you really pay the farmer for that food.  What do you value more than the stuff of life that comes from the farm?



4 Comments so far
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A nifty solution: Learn to grow, cook, and preserve for yourself. You’ll probably enjoy it so much you’ll rent an acre and become a green thumb. Farmers don’t make what they should if they farm as a career. The work is back-breaking, and the pay-off is spare change and a sun tan. Maybe we should all just plant our own damn snap peas and buy some chickens. Folks like my grand-father can’t survive in the current ag industry.. but he sure does like to see his family in the garden. And who could complain? What this country needs is a little more dirt in the nails and a little less heat-n-eat.

Comment by lavantgardener

That’s a great post even though it explains some of the tough realities of farming! Take care & have a great week!

Comment by Janice

Fantastic article. Almost everything you describe of American farms in this article is also true of farms here in Australia. I wrote a post on this theme myself the other day, you have told the human story of the economics that I described.

Am glad to have found another great farmers blog to add to my RSS reader!

Comment by Jonathan

I think the vast majority of those who say they support small farms really by action don’t. They don’t want to be bothered with the details as long as food is available. They say they do and maybe occasionally buy a little at a farmer’s market or make a check to FarmAid. That’s more than most. If people were serious of investing in small farms we’d have small farms – of all types. So far the message I get is it’s just not important enough…and when it is it will be too late.

Comment by SlowMoneyFarm

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