Who Will Grow Your Food? Part I: The Coming Demographic Crisis in Agriculture

Note: This is the beginning of a multi-part series on agricultural education, the farming demographic crisis and the question of who will grow our food - what the problems are, how we will find new farmers, how they will be trained. To me, this is one of the most urgent questions of our time.

A quick, Jay Leno style quiz for the man and woman on the street.

Who will grow your food in the coming decades?

A. My friendly neighborhood agribusinessman will grow my food on a plantation the size of Wyoming using nearly enslaved non-white folks who are deported minutes after harvest. Or maybe there will be robots involved somewhere. Yeah, robots are good.

B. Farmers, of course. You know, those dumb people in the flyover states that we tolerate because they give us dinner. Where will they come from? Well, don't they grow in the ground upside down like raspberries? Or do I mean zucchini? Well, either way, I think they reproduce by spores.

C. Food grows? You mean in the ground? With DIRT on it? And bugs? Ewwww.

The above answers may be parody, but only slightly. It is safe to say that very few people in the US have given any serious consideration to the question of how their food will be grown in the future. And yet, as Aaron Newton and I observed in _A Nation of Farmers_, even if we weren't facing energy depletion and climate change and enormous social inequity, we'd be facing an agricultural crisis - one that is purely demographic.

As of 2002, the average American farmer was nearly 56 years old. The average American small farmer is over 60. More than one out of every four farmers is over 65 years old and rapidly facing retirement, and less than 6% of all American farmers are younger than 35 years old. Moreover, in at least one study (which I can't find again at the moment) the majority of farmers expressed that they were reluctant to see their children follow in their footsteps and face the boom and bust cycles, poverty and hardship of farming in the current atmosphere. That is, in most cases, there's no one to follow them.

I know a dozen farmers in this situation. John and his wife Allie live near us and run a lovely farm. They sell pork and meat rabbits, as well as beef cattle, hay and apples from their orchard. John is 55ish and so is his wife. They live on the farm John grew up in with his two children and John's parents, in their 80s. The parents are increasingly unable to help on the farm, and the children are now in college, with no real intention of returning to the land - and John is torn - he'd love to have his daughter or his son follow in his footsteps in some ways, but he can't honestly telll them it is the life he wants for them. The kids have watched dozens of the neighboring farmers go under, and while they have the skill set, they fear that the farm is ultimately doomed. Allie had to go to work during the last time prices collapsed to afford college for their kids, so now John does it all himself, and it gets harder as he gets older. We buy hay and apples from him, or from Dora, his 83 year old Mom. She sorts apples on a stool and tends her husband who had a stroke last year. We hope each year that the next one won't be the year they sell out.

My closest neighbor up the hill sold out. He was nearing 80 after dairy farming along these hills for more than 50 years. He had three children and not one dreamed of taking up the morning milkings, and he was fortunate enough to retire at the height of the (comparatively small) local real estate boom. So at the end of my road, down below the hill are a row of McMansions designed to attract people who want a country place. The problem is that the kind of people who like McMansions don't want to live in our rural space - the houses turn over often, so in the 8 years they've been here, some have been sold as often as four times, others are for rent now. Frank doesn't like seeing the houses on the fields he hayed and grazed his cows, from his new house at the top of the hill, but farmers don't have retirement plans, and what could he do?

You can hear a thousand stories like these if you talk to the older farmers. You can see partial solutions, like match up programs that connect people who want to farm with farmers , but the reality is this - the average American farmer is getting old. And again, even if we didn't have to face climate change's expected depredations on food, even if we didn't have to face the end of heavily industrial agriculture due to energy depletion and climate emissions, even if we weren't facing a world where structured inequity with a billion starving people and one out of nine supposedly-affluent Americans requiring food stamps - and we are - we'd be facing an agricultural crisis. All those things together mean we are facing a demographic disaster.

Why disaster? Well, for just about all of human history, the main way of getting farmers was to apprentice them to an older farmer, generally in their family. Over the last 200 years, industrialization has gradually reduced the number of farmers from about 1 in 2.5 people to 1 in 100. During the long period where agricultural populations were in decline, there were always more children of farmers than were needed - so some of them could be "drained off" from rural area to go to urban ones. Family farmers generally had a fairly large number of children and as fewer and fewer people were needed to do the work of agriculture, it was perfectly possible to continue the old way - raising an-ever smaller number of farmers on the apprentice system. There were enormous costs to this system - the destruction of rural communities, the "rural brain drain," the loss of a population that understands where food comes from, tremendous waste of energy and resources, and of course all the worst excesses of industrial agriculture, which derive mostly not from malice, but from the need to replace human farm labor. But it could, broadly, be sustained.

But all that has changed, and changed radically and painfully. Broadly speaking, about a third of all emissions worldwide are tied to agriculture. In the Global South, the worst of these costs are tied to burning forests for agriculture, but in the North, the highest costs come from industrialization of agriculture. They come from the heavy equipment and long shipping created by centralization, from the nitrous oxide produced by overfertilization with NPK fertilizers, from the methane produced by CAFO livestock operations. If we are to address our emissions crisis, we are going to have to face the fact that we can't go on replacing human beings with fossil fuels - it isn't an option.

Moreover, there's a great deal of reason to be concerned, as my readers know, about the long term availability of those fossil fuels. It doesn't take a vast decline in access to energy to cause an energy crisis - the 1970s oil shocks arose from a shortfall of just 5%, while Cubans lost an average of 20lbs and found themselves eating fried grapefruit peels with a decline in oil imports of less than 20%. When oil prices rose to $148 barrel and potash prices skyrocketed, farmers found themselves heading out of business, or reducing their fertilizer inputs and selling off equipment. In the poor world, those rising energy costs left land fallow because farmers, who desperately needed the food, couldn' afford to plant. One doesn't have to believe all the oil will disappear overnight to imagine that an oil shock could have profound effects on the ability of industrial production to continue.

The combination of climate change and energy depletion means that we will have to replace fossil fuels in agriculture with renewable resources. But that's easier said than done - there is a functioning solar powered tractor out there, but it isn't exactly mainstream, and it is extremely costly. In the Global South home scale methane digestion and biogas as well as homescale biofuels have an important role in agriculture - but they don't replace human labor. Animal manures, used wisely, could replace some synthesized fertilizer while treated humanure might replace others, but that requires more localized agriculture, where animal manures are spaced out according to populations.

In much of the Global South and through most of human history, populations have required 1/4 to 1/2 of their population (or more) to be engaged in the food system at some level to keep everyone eating. A large portion of those were farmers of some sort, and even those who aren't farmers often produce vegetables and small livestock to supplement their diets.

The easiest (and do not take this to mean that I am claiming this is easy) renewable resource to replace fossil fuels is human beings. They are extremely abundant (6.8 billion and counting), and have something that fossil fuels don't - those nice big brains. Thoughtful, intelligent agriculture can replace many times the fossil fuel equivalent in human labor - that is, it isn't a matter of replacing machine horsepowers with an equivalent number of human beings, because we're smarter than machines. And not only are human beings widely available, but those smarter practices are often much less destructive.

How many more people do we need? Well, for rough calculation purpose Aaron and I have argued that since most low-industrialization societies (not pre-industrial, but with access to dramatically fewer energy resources) both in the present and the past have about 1/3 of their population involved in agriculture either as full time farmers or as part time farmers. This was a rough calculation and not intended to be precise, but for the purposes of rhetoric, Aaron and I have called for 100 million new farmers. Most of those, we suspect, will not be full time farmers, but small gardeners and market farmers. We will also, however, need millions of full time farmers as well.

Even if the 100 million number is wildly overstated (and what figure is necessary will depend on the shape of climate change and energy depletion, rather than on preference, realistically speaking), we will need many, many more farmers than the ones we have, and many younger farmers.

Necessity, then, is leading us to a vast cultural shift, and one we're ill prepared for. On Science Blogs there's a lot of discussion (good and valuable) about the importance of science education and preparing young people for careers in science. In the culture at large, there's a lot talk (good and valuable) about the coming demographic shift in which we will need a lot more nurses, doctors and specialists in elder care. There is almost no discussion whatsoever of the even more pressing crisis in agriculture - the profound need to train young people to grow food. The assumption has been that technology and resources are infinite and the path to ever-fewer farmers and offshoring of agriculture will continue indefinitely.

Even more than the "technology and cheap energy will save us" assumption that is so prevalent and wrong in our society is another underlying assumption, even more destructive. It is that because agriculture is unskilled labor, work suitable to people who aren't qualified for better and higher things, we will simply be able to handle this through market forces - as low wage jobs disappear in one area, those people will just become farmers. But that's ridiculous on several levels. The first is that low wage workers can't buy land, and often can't even rent it. But the more important one is this - agriculture is highly skilled, highly thoughtful, important work that requires an enormously varied skill set. I know this because I've been trying to acquire it for most of the last decade, and I now finally feel like I know enough to describe what I don't know. Learning to farm was considerably harder than academia, than learning multiple languages, reading Kant or writing publishable papers. It was also a hell of a lot more fun, but that doesn't diminish the difficulty of understanding an ecological system that you depend upon.

Let us say that we will need only 5% of the US population to become farmers. But since the vast majority of farmers are facing retirement within the next two decades, and under 35 farmers are such a tiny percentage, that means we will need to train 30-50 times as many young farmers in the next two decades as we have been doing. The numbers could be substantially higher. But where would even those small numbers of farmers come from? Even if the younger farmers were to have a lot of kids and encourage them to stay on the farm, that doesn't resolve the problem.

So where do they come from? This is a new problem for human society - while we've always had some people take up agriculture as a new profession (and when that happened, say, during the settlement of the US west, there were always extremely high failure rates and ecological costs), the vast majority of those who did the work and stayed at it grew up on farms. We have never before in human history (except perhaps when we developed agriculture, and that didn't happen all at once) had to teach an entire generation of non-farmers to farm. But that's the problem we face.

In _A Nation of Farmers_ one of the things that Aaron and I argue is that the next generation of American farmers will have to come out of the garden, and from other nations rather than off the American farm. That is, the children who grow up with some knowledge of growing things will largely fall into two categories. They will grow up with parents who garden, and teach their children to garden, and who take that set of skills and build upon it, or they will be the migrants themselves or the children of immigrants who come from cultures where agriculture is more common than it is today.

Both of these approaches (and I'm going to write more about each of them in a coming post) have their issues, however. Immigrant populations often struggle to find land and establish themselves as farmers - often what happens is that they end up as impoverished laborers on someone else's farm, never able to get their own land or establish their own farms. Social programs push recent immigrants into cities, where there are a lot of other immigrants like them, rather than on to the land - Hmong refugees, for example, are one fo the great success stories in agriculture in a number of states, but have established themselves as farmers with great difficulty, often after an extended cycle of poverty in urban apartments, where their agricultural traditions are valueless. Moreover, many immigrants to the US want "better" for their children than an agrarian future - they want their kids to become professionals, not farmers like they were. They recognize that agriculture is not a high-status profession, or highly paid, and they want their kids to have more than they have - agriculture is not a way to achieve that, and that would have to change to make a substantial cultural shift.

The children of gardeners have other difficulties. For the affluent ones (and we should remember that gardeners are often not affluent) the problem of status is central. The contempt we have for farmers is evident in the fact that we do not ever direct children towards agriculture as a profession if they are bright or thoughtful. In the 1980s, as I was transitioning from middle to high school, I told my guidance counselor that I wanted to attend the local "Aggie" the farming vocational school. I couldn't imagine a better school situation than to get to work in a garden and with animals. My guidance counselor was very kind, but simply observed "Sharon, that's for kids who aren't smart enough to go to college. You aren't like that." That was an object lesson in the value we place on agriculture. I wish now, of course, that I'd had the ovaries to insist, but I was 13, and I believed the grownups.

What kind of radical cultural transformation would we have to have to allow middle class parents to say "I hope you grow up to be a farmer." Or "Honey, why don't you take some agriculture classes along with calc and physics?" Or "Honey, have you considered a cow college? Cows are great!" What would it take to make agriculture a profession of status? Eric and I are going to explore this question in one of the next posts in this series, talking about how we might begin integrating agricuture and systems science together for kids and college students.

When one out of three or two of every American kids was farmer, you could count on a large number of bright young people to grow up and become farmers. Even after the population began to decline, we benefitted from the fact that, as the expression goes, "The American public is lucky that farming is a disease not a job." That is, despite every pressure to send out anyone bright and thoughtful, some of the best and brightest still stayed at it. It is a testament to the power of agriculture.

But the truth is that rural areas can't bear the brain drain forever, and that we need thoughtful, well educated, creative people in agriculture *DESPERATELY* because as Greenpa put it in the comments to a previous post, we're inventing a viable agriculture. That is, we've never before had to deal with the fact that there are no new frontiers, there's no land we can afford to abandon, there's no new place to go to avoid the consequences of fouling our land and wasting our resources. We need people who can create a sustainable - not in the superficial sense of the word, but really, truly sustainable - that is, can go on forever - agriculture. And that will take the best minds we have, and every kind of human intelligence, wisdom and thoughtfulness. And we need it soon.

For low income urban kids, even in the garden, the problem will be access to land, and also, access to a world of nature that expands beyond the highly structured nature of very small garden plots. That is, farming isn't just learning to grow food, or learning to raise animals - it is learning to manage a space that is both wild and tame, and to have them exist simultaneously. A good farm pasture should support nearly as much wildlife as a comparable forest. A farm woodlot should support even more. A community garden plot or a public park offer little chance to teach kids to know and trust and understand the wild. We need a generation of people who have ties to such spaces - as I've written about before, establishing urban-rural ties may be our most central project.

We are facing a problem that literally has never been faced in human history - we don't have enough people who know how to feed us to keep going foward. And for the most part, we're not even fully aware of the problem. We have no plan going forward. And our children are being taught that farming is unworthy of them. This, folks, is a crisis.



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We live in what is called an agricultural community and of the 100 nearest residents to us, maybe three are seriously farming. Two of these alternate sheep and grass seed, and the third does Christmas trees.

Wow. Awesome, Sharon. I have never understood why it is that farming has been treated as unskilled labor... just notice the way anthropologists talk about "urban specialists" vs the peasants. Huh?! Urban specialists are parasitic on the farmers! And what do the peasants get? Abuse and contempt. The medieval days were full of it... even as people understood that the peasants' labor was what made the other two "orders" (warriors and priests) possible. That's a lot of manure to compost... millennia of "crush the peasant" propaganda. Looking forward to your suggestions for turning it around.

I was getting ready to comment here and then decided to look and see if there were other posts- lo and etc., there's your diatribe on Erma. :-) With the hilarious punchline.

With which I agree; and I'd point out- the problems here are very very similar.

Societal Respect.

We have, alas, spent huge amounts of societal energy on imbuing brainless, useless, skill-less couch potatoes with adamantine "self esteem" - one of the greatest dangers to our survival as a species since the invention of high fructose corn syrup.

We have also carefully built up professional athletes as stellar role-models for our children; giving us Tiger Woodies, and endless date rapes.

But boy, do we respect them all! And the snot nosed brats who demand our esteem.

This is actually a problem where some intelligent iceberg pushing could pay off, I think. I first tried to make headway here by subverting my local newspaper owner to help generate community respect - on the long term, and large scale- for teachers.

Another part of the same problem; societally priceless individuals who are ignored by society. Leaving the kids wondering; hm; the quarterback is GOD when he walks down the street; the Mayor fawns on him- and nobody even sees my Math teacher- which one do I want to be?

The media are complicit; and could by intention start to reshape some opinion. Every fall; there is issue after issue of the local newspaper that goohs and aahs about each idiot high school football player. In insane detail. oooh. Ahhhh.

The teachers get maybe one column a year.

If you had a local editor with a brain- it would really be simple for them to set up "teachers issues" - where the teachers are given the same (golly, better??!) coverage. Photos. Histories. Quotes. Quotes from old students. Every fall: here's our new lineup.

It would be a push for recognition; and respect.

Farmers need the same thing; they have their own papers, and societies that hand out awards; but really- only farmers notice much. There has to be a similar way to get them the recognition; and respect, and valuation, they actually deserve.

Maybe a high-school class, required along with English and "Civics"? "Great Farmers Of New York." From 1640 to 2009.


Ok, people would laugh, at first. :-)

Maybe what we need is a new, improved euphemism for "Farmer". Which is, you realize, a euphemism for "Peasant".

My serious suggestion; planned work to generate true respect for farmers. Has to come from outside- farmers won't do it. They mostly have low self esteem...

To add a (very) small positive note: technology (specifically the Internet) is at least reducing the opportunity cost of nonurban living. It's possible for people who want to pursue nonagricultural careers to live in rural communities instead of cities.

I've observed a serious renewal happening in small Western towns for the first time in my life -- and I'm nearing retirement. There's some hope that urban refugees such as my kids can choose to live outside of the cities and my (I hope!) grandkids will grow up knowing where food comes from, at least some of how it gets to us, and with agriculture as a viable option.

Farm boy (my father) to engineer (me) to academic (my kids) to farm kids (my grandchildren)? Farm to farm in four generations? Who knows?

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

Awesome. You need to be publishing this in as many places as you can.

The governments of the world need this kind of reality-based input.


"Iron Farmer" competitions- Ted Turner might be conned into it-

"Rin-Tin-Salatin" - animé cartoon series-

"Pollan The Barbarian" - in IMax-

"C. Food grows? You mean in the ground? With DIRT on it? And bugs? Ewwww."

I swear, my mother once told me to be careful of eating mushrooms, because "they grow in dirt."

Good post, though.

What kind of radical cultural transformation would we have to have to allow middle class parents to say "I hope you grow up to be a farmer."

Simple. Food has to become much more expensive by at least one order of magnitude, maybe two, or the standard of middle class living has to be reduced by a similar amount.

'Status' concerns are a red herring. The children of farmers aren't finding new occupations because they want more respect; they're leaving the farm because farming for a living is backbreakingly hard work (becoming exponentially worse if we're to replace fossil fuel inputs with 'human resources' or domestic livestock) and extremely risky (good or bad years result from the weather, which is unpredictable even before climate change is factored in). You want people to commit to farming? Give them no other options but to farm.

By mad the swine (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

So, I have difficulty reconciling this with the reports of how much food we are wasting.
I realize we've got a bloated, unsustainable, ridiculous system and that if we reform that we'll have radically less food. I realize we'll have to turn to methods that are less efficient in terms of time/person-energy to get more efficiency out of fuel-energy. But there is a *lot* of slack in the system, and while I don't want to just trust that technology will Solve! Everything!, I also don't think it's ridiculous to assume we *will* have solar powered tractors and the like. Since they obviously can exist.

However, maybe we will need a lot more farm labor. Personally, I don't think a third of our population as farmers sounds as good as everyone spending a third of their time farming. Farming has those natural cycles; one of the reasons it's so impossible to make a living on a farm is that it makes you very vulnerable if something goes wrong. Having other skills to be employed with when it is *not* harvest season is very important.

That said, in a *realistic* 'how do we get there from here' analysis, 1/3 of US citizens aren't going to be farmers. Instead we're going to be getting labor from other countries and importing food . Yes, that's very bloated and wasteful in terms of fossil fuel/transportation, but I think it'll get 'worse' (more global) before it gets better (more local).

Mad the Swine- so; all that's necessary for good motivation is - that they make more money? Just curious; have you been paying any attention to the recent total failure of "the market knows and does all" concept?

Likewise- the idea that farming is "backbreaking" - is really not true. Necessarily. Work? sure- mindkilling? that certainly happens- when a farmer is "trying to get ahead" (make more money" or when they are in bondage, of one flavor or another.

Farm wives have been complaining about this little built in kink literally for centuries, and in many cultures; as soon as the Man gets field # 4 up and running, and producing- he's got to start clearing and working field # 5. Why? More money! Why? um- respect. That's where the mindkilling life comes from.

Becca, it is true there's a huge amount of waste in the system. And it is true it seems that we could reduce the waste in the system and get along with even fewer farmers - but most of the best ways to reduce the waste in the system actually require more farmers - that is, reducing transport distances so less food is logt in transport, shifting to IPM methods of pest management (we lose more food to pests now that we're using heavy pesticides than we did before we started applying them), etc...

Solar powered tractors exist, technically speaking, but they are small tractors that can serve a very small farm - and they aren't going to get a lot bigger any time soon because the ratio of flat space that you have to cover with solar panels is not proportional. For the same reason we'll never have solar powered mining equipment, we're never going to have giant solar powered combines for 5,000 acre farms. We come back again to "not big" which means "more farms" which means "more farmers."

Even if you only had to replace half the existing population of farmers in the next decade (absolutely certain) you'd have a crisis, just a smaller one.

At the moment, the economic crisis has worked to reduce globalization - you could make a case that in the short term it will grow again, but I think that you have to make the case.

I don't think that the skill set of farming is compatible with 1/3 time farming - how do you live in a city and commute out efficiently 1/3 of the time to do your share of the farming? Moreover, how do you learn the skill set? Who takes care of the cows/hogs/soil while you are off doing something else? I agree that most of the new farmers (I explain at some length why I use that term in the book) will not be full time farmers, but we will also need a substantial increase in full time farmers as well. Although I applaud the idea that every man woman and child should do it - that's more audacious than me ;-).


Mad the Swine - lots of jobs are physically hard. Ever unloaded crates at Walmart? Worked road crew in July in the south? Helped obese nursing home patients on and off the toilet? Been a nurse? Waited tables on your feet for 10 hours? Worked a 90 hour week in front of a computer at a law firm?

The world is full of physically onerous jobs, and of people who aren't scared off from them that way. The issue is status and culture and awareness and access - and also job security and the diversion of resources into useful and correct places.


I don't mean to suggest anything negative regarding rural folks in general, but not all of the negative biases and hostility are held by the urban side of the divide. One of the reasons that the bright, thoughtful kids so often prefer to leave small towns is that they're the most likely to start questioning the local church teachings or political opinions, or maybe come out of the closet, and if they're caught at this they'll often be ostracized. Of course, if those kids stayed put there would be more diverse local culture eventually (hundreds of small towns in Iowa used to have their own opera houses), but it's rational on their part to try to maximize the comfort and dignity of their own lives. I would hate to live in one of those little southern towns that's still all white.

dewey - boy, I really wish I could say you're full of it.

But you're not.

Yeah, all that bad stuff is still there; just like it was when Sinclair Lewis wrote "Main Street" - about a small town in Minnesota.

More icebergs to push on.

There IS (usually) some support for diversity in small towns; I've experienced it. But it's always an uphill struggle.

Hm. Remember the BPOE? Eagles? Woodmen Of The World? Moose?

I wonder if those models could be revived- the Lions and Kiwanis are still around- theoretically, one might launch a new one; with your kind of support built in-

i grew up in a farming community, was a member of 4H and FFA throughout my childhood and teen years, but i could not escape fast enough. it wasn't the farming that drove me away never to return -- i loved the land, the animals and the plants -- it was the people.

My 13-year-old wants to be a sustainable chicken farmer, but realizes that in today's economy, she will need to do so as a side-line.

I grew up on a 200 brood cow farm where we also raised some sheep and pigs. I guess I am technically part of that rural brain drain as I was not able to return to our family's farm because my grandparents gave equal portions of the land to all the children. My dad, who was the only one to farm the land and support his parents, was unable to purchase the land back. So there is not enough of a farm for me to return to. So instead, I am now a professor teaching students about animal science. Unfortunately, animal science departments are geared up to produce pre vet students and graduate students and not potential farmers.

Why am I not farming? Start up costs. From a beef cattle farm perspective, if it is to be large enough to fully support a family, the farm needs to have around 600 brood cows. (This is a conservative estimate as a UM study placed the number at 850 brood cows) In the rural county where I or my wife grew up, that would require 1000 acres. So just the cost of the cows and land would be at least $11 million. This ignores equipment, fences, etc.

The margins on farming are simply too small to allow for many small farms to exists profitably. If you look back 100 years, food was the largest expense for people and required one third to one half of income. Now food represents an incredibly small portion of the average income.

The only way to get more people to farm is for land and start up costs to decline and for people to pay far more for food than they do now.

I have also held Extension programs for new beef farmers. Most new beef farmers became wealthy from another profession and decided to retire early. They then purchase land and animals. The last survey I saw on this topic was from Texas. 85% of all beef farmers never expected to make a profit. They farmed cattle because they liked to do so.

Farming needs to brought into the 20th century, to speak nothing of the 21st century. Consolidate the farms the same way factories consolidated all the craftpersons working at home. Instead of jack-of-all-trades, specialists. Some people specialize in driving the tractor, some people in fixing broken tractors, just like elsewhere. The guy who drives 18-wheelers is not the same as the guy who fixes them. Other people specialize in commodity hedging, others specialize in financing, etc. The reason farming is still so backwards is that farmers are incredibly conservative about everything, which is why everyone in the cities despises them and young people don't want to be farmers. They'll be another big agricultural shakeout at some point. Commodity prices will collapse, all these independent farmers will finally die off or go bankrupt and we'll finally see some modernization. Corporations will run things and young people will at last see a chance to have a real career in a modernized farming industry, as opposed to joining some cult that worships the past.

Boy did this article get me heated...I am the son (& grandson) of proud farmers. I now make a living in acadamia. And some of the patronizing comments i get (or that i read here) when I tell them people grew up in agriculture make me insane...

It drives me crazy hearing these "poor farmer" stories. The idea of Ma & Pa cutting hay, milking cows, and feeding chickens is archaic. No real farmer does that anymore. And if someone you know does that, well than that is "hobby farming".

Modern farmers today specialize in one thing (maybe two), and you mass produce. You either grow corn. Or you raise pigs. Or you hatch chickens. You do not do all them.

This is not a bad thing. It creates massive amount of food. Cheaply.

If you want to save or even replace all "John and Allie's" who sell pork and meat rabbits, well thats great. But please know that what that the price of your bacon is going to double (or triple) in price.

Farms will always have farmers & agri-business will always have farmers. Like "Mad the Swine" says, once food prices rise and it becomes more lucrative (and a reliable) way to make money, the "brain drain" will reverse.

By The Kardinal (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

Sharon- there's a key point here, the potential for part-time farming probably depends on the *type* of farming we're talking about. If you want to run a serious dairy farm, that's obviously a 24/7/365 style commitment (cow's gotta be milked!!!). On the other hand, tending the amount of land needed for many of a family's day-to-day essentials (either a very large garden or a [by today's standards] a very small farm) does *not* adequately occupy every member of that family every day of the year.
Also, I never said we had to live in cities. Or that we couldn't grow food in cities. Or that we had to live in them year round, at least. Or that we had to have individual houses at all (as opposed to communal dwellings). But now I am getting audacious, I know. ;-)

On the solar tractor issue, I'm really curious. What about the current model suggests that it's the best humanity will ever come up with? Are we really coming up against the limits of the laws of thermodynamics, or just rules of known *materials*?

Anyway, I can easily see the need for more farming, and how practically speaking that will require more fulltime farmers (not that it's necessarily my personal ideal scenario).
Still, as a graduate student in the sciences, I hope you can understand my visceral emotional gut-response to "We have a crisis of an aging population who are trained to do this!". We have an aging population, of farmers and everyone else. That's a good thing- it means people are living longer. People are also going to have to work longer and not retire at 65.
What I probably really need to understand better is the data on: the population of farmers and people employed in agriculture over the last 50 years; the median age of the population; the median age of farmers; and a few scenarios of possible future need for farmers.

On the solar tractor issue, I'm really curious. What about the current model suggests that it's the best humanity will ever come up with? Are we really coming up against the limits of the laws of thermodynamics, or just rules of known *materials*?

Laws of geometry, mostly. The power required by a tractor is proportional to its mass, which goes up as the cube of linear dimension. The power available from a solar collector is proportional to its area, which goes up as the square of linear area. Improvements in efficiency and materials only operate linearly, so they're very minor influences on size (size proportional to cube root of efficiency.)

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

Becca, the reality is that farmers have a tough time going into their 80s or 90s. Sure the math profs can keep going into their 70s pretty easy, and so the software engineers (although that's tough on the body too, all that sitting), but it is tough to milk cows or feed hogs late in life. The reality is that farms - even modern farms - have never managed to eliminate all human labor, and that labor is physical. In one sense, you are right - the aging farmers are living and working longer. But there are material and object limits to this - really serious ones. DC pretty much answered your other question as I would.

Dewey and GrrlScientist, you are right - that's part of the issue. Making rural communities accessible to people - less narrow, more welcoming, less prejudiced - these things matter. On the other hand, if we can do the work for science - if we can pioneer through the crap in academia or in engineering, we can do it in the country as well. Because it has to be done.

Kardinal, this is true = it is good at producing a lot of cheap food, although not as cheap when you count in the subsidies, the health costs, the global warming consequences, the topsoil loss and the fossil water depletion. It is also an excellent way to contaminate groundwater with your hog manure lagoon, an excellent way to drive farmers to suicide in the next wave of consolidations, a good way to make money for large industrial companies, and a good way to contribute to global warming. The truth is that what is being done now can't keep going - we don't have the resources. So it isn't a matter of being proud or not of it - I'm not hostile to industrial scale farmers themselves, because most of them are doing what they have to to stay in business. But the business as it exists now doesn't have a future.

It is absolutely true that no matter what, food prices are going to rise - I'm guessing they will double or more over the next few decades. We now spend about 11% of our income on food - the odds are good that we're talking 20-30% over time as the costs go up. And it is true that farmers will expand as it becomes more profitable - but it also takes time to replace farmers, just as it takes time to create research chemists or mining engineers. Moreover, as long as we experience energy price instability (probably for much of the forseeable future) we're going to see food price instability - and farmers can only take so many boom and bust cycles before they just bust. The rising food prices of the last few years mostly didn't end up the pockets of most farmers - a few large corn farmers did well, but overwhelmingly, the cycles haven't been good for anyone. What we'd have to have is stable, consistent rises in food prices - and I wouldn't hold my breath for that before we need more farmers.


Solar tractor. The idea cracks me up; having lived off grid and with tractors for 30 years- yep, I could run one, if 2/3 of my farm was in solar panels.

Besides, they're antiquated. Called "horse", and "ox". :-)

Here's some truth, to counteract all this nonsense Sharon is spouting. The world is huge and the possibilities for technological improvement are even huger. In particular, African farming will eventually be modernized, same as what is now happening in Brazil and the rest of South America. If you look at southen Africa on a non-distorting map, you'll see that it is far larger than the United States and has a milder climate. The potential there for boosting production of corn and soybeans is mind-boggling. The potential for improvements in genetic engineering, which would affect productivity elsewhere, is equally mind-boggling. Eventually, we'll figure out how to mine the ocean for phosphorus, which the the only true limit on agricultural production. Bottom-line, commodity prices will collapse worse than ever before, there will be fewer people working on real farms than ever, the family farm will go the way of the family coal mine, the family pig-iron smelter, the family oil refinery, the family car factory--all of which have long since been replaced by corporations with salaried and specialist employees. No one will be forced to work 24/7/365 milking cows, any more than people are forced to work 24/7/365 tending oil refineries. People will work shifts, with provisions for employees illnesses and vacations, etc,

Eventually, we'll figure out how to mine the ocean for phosphorus, which the the only true limit on agricultural production.

Aside from nitrogen, water, energy for operations, transport, and a few other minor details anyway.

Oh, that's right -- the Earth is producing fossil fuels faster than we can use them and more carbon compounds in the atmosphere are just plant food.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

Fred- you left out the imminent arrival of nuclear fusion, free space flight and mining the asteroids, and the cure for cancer (which actually happened in 1959, but has been supressed by evil Luddites.)

Ahhh! I'm so relieved by Fred's comments. I just have to wait long enough for all these "independent farmers" to "die off or go bankrupt". Then, we'll finally see some "modernization". I'm so relieved that "corporations will run things", and I'm sure things will get better from thereon. I think Fred needs to check with some others before he claims that "Everyone in the cities despises them (farmers)". In the 21st Century, Fred, in case you haven't been paying attention, these "backward" fols are the very ones to whom you'll be crawling for a cup of beans. As opposed to a "modernized farming INDUSTRY", these farmers may be the folks who do, indeed, and gladly, comprise a "cult" that values the past. And they're not alone. Not all of us, Fred, see value in or appreciate the cul-de-sac "modern agriculture" has steered the world into. If I were you, I'd learn how to operate a seed drill and a hoe. It's probably not important, but I can't tell from the tone of your post of you're just ignorant, or immature, or both. No offense, eh?

By Bill in TN (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

Fred, what is mind-boggling is your cornucopianism. Have you ever been anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa?? Yeah, the winters are not as bad as ours - which is not to say they're balmy everywhere - but much of the land that isn't very difficult terrain is freaking DRY. How, especially within the constraints of a monoculture model, will the production on that land be increased to anything like the American average?

You can postulate a pie-in-the-sky Jetsons world where all that land is magically irrigated with fossil water (till it runs out) or with desalinated seawater. Where will the money and resources for that infrastructure come from? How will African farmers pay for the pesticides and fertilizers? Per capita consumption of goods and services in Africa has dropped something like 30% over the past few decades. The West does not seem eager to share the wealth; what we semi-promised by way of aid at Copenhagen will not even suffice to fully compensate for the *increase* in drought that is predicted to result from climate change, far less to greatly increase productivity in already drought-prone areas.

Those areas also have rather fragile soils, which after a few years of farming by the corporate model will simply be gone. Sharon will point out that our current model is not indefinitely sustainable. If commodity prices are lowered for a decade or two at the cost of mass starvation for the grandchildren of today's Africans, only a monster - or a big Monsanto shareholder - would see that as an acceptable tradeoff.

Greenpa- you have antiquated photosynthesizing oxen?!!! GIMME!

D.C.- let me rephrase my question; are current photocells capturing close to 100% of the energy of the sunlight reaching them? Are current tractor designs as light as possible for the task that needs to be completed (what are they made of, kevlar?)? Wouldn't better batteries make all solar powered vehicles more useful?
I understand geometry and laws of thermodynamics put real limits on what can be done; from what little I know of the science/engineering of solar panels, we're not close to those limits.

Sharon- unlike photocell engineering, I *can* claim at least a little expertise on human physiology. We can, and hopefully will, do a lot better job of keeping people *healthy* into their 80s and 90s. There are material and object limits here, but scenarios which involve older people staying in good enough shape to run a modern farm aren't out of the realm of the possible, as I see it.

In a way, I despair more for the math professor's prospects. We all know that everything mathematicians accomplish will be completed by the time they're 30.
And that's a law of nature. Just ask the mathematicians.

Oh My Gosh!!! I just figured it out! Fred has got a patent on some alchemical substitue for fossil fuels---and he's got as patent on it!!!!!!! My broker tried to clue me in on FREDSTAR, INC but I passed. Silly me.

The key term Fred uses is "eventually". In case he hasn't figured it out, "eventually" has about as much value to us as a cup of dust from Mars. We ain't got no "eventually" in this reality.

Sorry to hear he has such a low opinion of the family farm, wherein his future will "eventually" reside.

By Bill in TN (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

Becca, I admit, I don't necessarily forsee the longer lifespans you project continuing forward. We're already seeing declines in lifespans in poorer counties in the US, albeit small ones, and I suspect that trend will continue unless we are fortunate enough to have a realistic (rather than Freddian ;-)) technological breakthrough that reduces the consequences of our actions.

Moreover, what I think is really interesting among the baby boomers I meet is that they all seem to pretty much *want* to retire around the same age as their parents - in their 60s. With the exception of a few highly paid emeritus profs, etc... most of them can't wait - they are *tired* even if they are healthy. My husband and I have 8 mostly boomer (and one slightly older, with one significantly older, in mid-70s) parents. An unscientific survey, but just for example, my Mom (60) got laid off during the last state economic crisis, and took early retirement. My step-Mom would kill to quit her job, but until she and my Mom are old enough for state benefits, needs health insurance. But she certainly won't be continuing on to her 70s (she's 59). My Dad - lost a job in the current recession, may never get another (he's been unemployed for almost 2years). His partner is still working, planning on retiring next year or the year after - if she can afford it. FIL retired as a software engineer, he's 64, took the second he could. Step MIL 65, retired from teaching the second she could. MIL retired from HR as soon as she could. Step-FIL kept working as a gastroenterologist until 65, then retired. They technically *could* keep working, but they don't want to. And that's the thing about farming - even if longevity becomes widely available equitably across class, I don't see folks longing to keep up their jobs, including farming for an extra 20 years. They'll retire. Nor do I think the "modern farm" has eliminated human labor.

Ah, but the math professor did all his work when he was 30, now all he has to do is hang on and enjoy tenure and be increasingly cranky with undergrads ;-).


Mad the Swine - lots of jobs are physically hard. Ever unloaded crates at Walmart? Worked road crew in July in the south? Helped obese nursing home patients on and off the toilet? Been a nurse? Waited tables on your feet for 10 hours? Worked a 90 hour week in front of a computer at a law firm?

Point 1: sitting in front of a computer doing intellectual "labor", even for ninety hours a week, is simply not comparable to actual work. No offense meant to any lawyers reading.

Point 2: how many people do you know who chose those jobs (minus nursing and legal work, which are both highly skilled labor and so really aren't comparable) deliberately? What you've listed are jobs people take because they can't find better - not because they're 'low status', but because they're hard, dirty jobs with low pay and little job security. (Mainly because they're non-union, but that's another argument. Farmers are self-employed, and it's not as if a Farmer's Union can make sure the weather stays nice anyway.)

The margins on farming are simply too small to allow for many small farms to exists profitably. If you look back 100 years, food was the largest expense for people and required one third to one half of income. Now food represents an incredibly small portion of the average income.

The only way to get more people to farm is for land and start up costs to decline and for people to pay far more for food than they do now.

Exactly. Forget the OP's hatred of the free market for just a minute. A massive imposition of 'food taxes' could be used to compel farming and home gardening, if you swing that way. You can romanticize farming all you like in an effort to change how people see farms and farmers; all you'll get (as occurred with the back-to-the-land movement in the 60s and 70s) is people getting into farming without understanding what they're getting into, failing, and giving up. You won't convince people who grew up farming to go back to the land after college if they didn't already intend to go back; and the reasons why the children of farmers take up a farming career have nothing to do with how awesome non-farmers think farming is.

By mad the swine (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

D.C.- let me rephrase my question; are current photocells capturing close to 100% of the energy of the sunlight reaching them? Are current tractor designs as light as possible for the task that needs to be completed (what are they made of, kevlar?)? Wouldn't better batteries make all solar powered vehicles more useful?

The material that matters most to a tractor is the one it's moving around. Dirt, wheat, cotton, or whatever. The tractor weight itself is necessary to provide traction to apply that force, so lighter tractor materials aren't a big benefit. Increasing the collector efficiency to 100% is going to let you increase the mass of the tractor/load by about 4:1, which is also what you're going to get from a 2:1 increase in tractor size -- which gets you an 8:1 increase in tractor mass which you'd need for the load.

Batteries, now -- there you have a scalable solution. Get usable batteries into the thing and you have the possibility of charging it from collectors on the barn roof or from windmills.

The stuff the tractor is made from is nice to improve, but the stuff the power system is made from is going to be revolutionary. Then again, I've long been preaching the idea that the really big advances in technology have been driven by our materials. Circuit jockeys like me, for instance, are slaves to the sorcerers who provide us with strange materials in stranger geometries, all made possible by more strange (and exceedingly pure) materials.

Think about what our understanding of physiology would be like if we were limited to materials available 100 years ago.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

Properly ignoring Fred's fantasy that the Africans all get to be our food slaves again, and moving on to the real contributors ;-).

Mad the Swine - I do both. We ran our 20 person CSA with no more fossil fueled equipment than a lawn mower to haul inputs - everything else was done by hand, often in late stages of pregnancy for me. I also have spent 80 hours a week writing. They are both physical labor - and intellectual labor. Using your brain to figure out how best to maximize your resources is intellectual, as is writing. But both of them are physically demanding - and honestly, I think the sitting at the computer is harder. The back pain, repetetive stress injuries and muscle loss hurts worse than the hard physical labor. Both are blindingly exhausting physically, but in different ways. But many people work hard physically - a doctor who works consecutive shifts, a nurse who lifts patients, a waitress who carries heavy trays on her feet all day, the guy who builds houses, etc... Some of these are shit jobs and some of them are good ones - but they are physically demanding. Work isn't bad just because it is physically demanding - if the only jobs anyone ever wanted to do involved sitting on your ass all day, we'd have no builders, no cops, no firefighters, no nurses, no doctors, no preschool teachers, no landscapers... And yes, you are right, some of those jobs aren't choices - but plenty of physical jobs are. I just don't see that you've made a compelling case that hard work is the problem. And some of the people who do those physical jobs you say no one chooses do choose them - because they like using their bodies. My BIL could have been an accountant - but he quit to do construction because he didn't like sitting a desk all day. Never heard anyone say they like doing physical work that gets them outside? I find that hard to believe. I also don't buy the "bad year" argument - who gets tenure these days? Who has job security? Farmers aren't much more vulnerable to forces out of their control than anyone else - "Oops, recession, no more job" "Oops, german company bought us, no more job" "Oops, offshoring, no more job." We like to say these things about agriculture, that it is just much worse than anything else, but I think that's part of the prejudice more than anything else.

It is absolutely the case that we'd have to make farming more profitable. But that's going to happen anyway - food prices are going to go up. The question is who gets the profits - in the 1970s farmers got about 40c of every dollar spent on food - it is now down to about 7 cents. The marginal squeeze went up again when prices rose - most of that was transferred to corporations, not to farmers - the same companies that engaged in food price speculation and helped increase the number of the world's hungry so dramatically. So not only do food prices have to go up, but even more importantly, who gets what we pay has to shift. That's tough to do if you live on cheetoes and coke - home production of cheetoes is a bitch and coca cola ain't giving out the secret recipe. But some of the transition will be less about how much we pay for food than how we pay it - how do farmers get a much bigger slice of the pie.

Again, I didn't claim it was simple, or that money wasn't involved. But the reality is that the transition probably has to start before we've worked all the kinks out - that is, we'll have to pay more for our food, shift our subsidies and also simultaneously train the next generation.


I agree that in order to get more farmers, we have to have better pay (unions are another issue, and one I'll deal with later - there was a point at which Granges began to function as farmer's unions, and the history of why they don't now is fascinating) and better work

As a gardener for the past 15 years and holder of a PhD in physical chemistry, I can say that for me, learning p-chem and learning gardening were quite different things. P-chem was, intellectually, for lack of a better term left-brainedly, far harder. Maybe that was because I wasn't all that good at it; I'm quite willing to concede that. On the other hand, gardening was much easier on the left brain (way less math!!!) but more of a challenge in a whole-systems sense. After 15 years, I think I'm just starting to get to be sort-of good at it, getting a decent yield with a reasonable amount of hand labor, extending the season to the point where we still have some stored food plus some collards in the open garden and some salad stuff in the cold frame. That still leaves me with a 4 month gap to fill in till I'm getting substantial yields from the garden again. I suspect this is one reason Sharon is worried (it's certainly one reason I worry): it takes many years to get to be good at gardening and farming if you're taking it up from scratch, because it's a whole-system effort. We don't have years to get people trained up.

We don't have years to get people trained up.

Quibble: years we have, decades not so much.

Part of the problem (touched on above) is that "family farming" is capital intensive with a very bad risk/return ratio. In good years, the prices are low and in bad years the yields are -- but the mortgage is due regardless on land that could be sold to a Microsoft Millionaire for for a fortune.

Farms that have been in the family for generations disguise the fact that any sane banker would laugh you out the door if you proposed family farming as with a realistic business plan to justify actually buying a farm. On the other hand, the farmer's kids aren't going to stick around and run it.

So who's going to farm that 160-acre pepper patch?

Actual example: New Mexico chiles have dropped their share of the US market by about 10:1 in the last 15 years. Despite the undisputed quality of the product, most commercial chiles in the USA are now imported from Mexico and Asia. Me, I grow about half of my own and plan to move to the Rio Grande valley where I can buy them direct from the neighbors who grow them there.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

"how do you live in a city and commute out efficiently 1/3 of the time to do your share of the farming? Moreover, how do you learn the skill set? Who takes care of the cows/hogs/soil while you are off doing something else?"

There are some solutions here: Broiler chickens can be raised in batches that only last 3-4 months. Crops that require less than 120 days to ripen from transplants or seed (greens, carrots, early beets, northern breeds of curcurbits and Solanaceae, etc) are easy to mind, and you finish the harvest by sowing a cover crop--or run it in a hydroponic system, which is easier on the water supply. Just starting transplants from seed between late winter and late spring, that's an income source important for plenty of garden centers and nurseries that lasts maybe four months in northern climes. Maple sugaring lasts less than two months, and there are other food-raising chores that have similar patterns of little-to-no-maintenance that can be done over a weekend or two for the rest of the year, with bursts of activity when in season. Orchards, for one--I manage thirty fruit trees while working more than full time year-round, without breaking a sweat, and I still have time to watch Dr. Who. I'd have more like 60-100 if I had my druthers, but The Man gets after you for running a still to use up all your fruit ;-) Hatching chicks and poults for other people to raise and hatching fingerling fish are really only feasible in spring/early summer, for shipping reasons.

It's true that cows and hogs and dairy are not 1/3 time jobs, that field corn takes more than 120 days to grow, but lots of city jobs can be done via telecommuting; I don't think it's nearly as big a leap, especially in the teeth of another oil price spike, for employers to announce that they prefer telecommuters in lieu of raises, or telecommuter contractors with no other benefits (sigh) to reduce their overhead. And it's not a big deal for someone to do an hour or two of waterer-defrosting, feed-trough-filling and milking before signing onto the company intranet; heaven knows many people are stringing together multiple jobs as it is, not just farmers.

Learning the skill set is a challenge, but if you are working with something relatively novel like -ponics systems, you're not going to be helped by an apprenticeship from Old MacDonald either. However, the amazing advances of *cough cough* amateur hemp farmers seem to indicate that for those interested to learn and improve the art, the skills most certainly can be developed in one's spare time.

Becca- "Greenpa- you have antiquated photosynthesizing oxen?!!! GIMME!"

:-) Hey, green leaves are the original solar panels- and the batteries (starch, protein, etc.)

The efficiencies of natural systems astonish engineers; plants capture about 1% of incident sunlight; an ruminant (ox) digestion is estimated to be 30-50% efficient, depending on 2,000 variables; a horse less. I've actually heard an engineer I know ask a meeting how agronomists could possibly bother with such inefficient systems. He was serious.

What he neglected was that these systems are self-replicating, and self activating/self fueling. That counts quite a lot.

re solar efficiencies- 100% is NOT a possible limit; I understand the theoretical limit for silicon cells is around 40%. 100% would be the same as perpetual motion; not gonna happen, there's laws against it.

Current commercial single crystal silicon is now averaging 16-18% efficient- the first panels I bought in the 80's, state of the art, were all the way up to 8%. Space grade cells, which are usually not silicon, but gallium arsenide or something- often run over 35%.

I'm not aware of anyone in the cell biz who thinks of tractors as a reasonable direction for solar power...

Get a horse! :-)

DC - "any sane banker.."

Um. What? Where? Who? When?

I assume you've also discovered a live viable population of moas in New Zealand.


DC - "any sane banker.."

Um. What? Where? Who? When?

Joking aside, I've met a few. Notably small-town bankers whose families have been serving the same communities for the better part of a century -- or more. No high-flying games with other peoples' money, just getting their neighbors funding for seed, land, and business operations.

For all of the USA's ritual celebration of "small-town Real America (tm)" they get damn little respect for doing a better job than the headline crowd -- just like farmers.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

The farm demographic is sobering, the youths leaving the farms are marooned in jobless urban areas, not a recipe for success.

At the same time, there are many younger people who would like to farm but the barriers to entry are too high. Competition with government is #1 reason as farm subsidies - interest rate, depreciation, crop support and transport/fuel subsidies and tax benefits are channeled to corporates designed to 'harvest' them.

The $600 or so billions lavished on finance could have bought every prime acre of corn land and given it and a large stipend to every individual wishing to farm. One million new farmers would mean one million new farm families plus several millions more in farm towns and communities multiplying the value of the new million farms' produce.

The cadre of existing farmers are a resource that is being wasted by them not having student farmers whom to instruct. The belated class of new farmers - and they will come, no mistake about that - will have to learn on their own with no room to fail, for them and those who will depend on them.

If it wasn't so tragic it would be farcical.

"Properly ignoring Fred's fantasy that the Africans all get to be our food slaves again, and moving on to the real contributors ;-)."

Thanks Sharon. I was getting pretty scared reading Fred for a moment there.

With all due respect Fred, if you're surfing into Sharon's site from scienceblogs.com for the first time, you ought to hang out a while and read up on some of these subjects discussed herein, such as the state of world (and African) agriculture, energy, and social issues at least a little while before posting further. The differences between what the state of the world really is, regarding these affairs, and what you apparently think it is Fred, is, ummm, considerable. Wow.

By Stephen B (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

Well, I'm 21, grew up on a small farm/large garden with animals, and I will be a farmer. My grandparents on once side had an apple orchard, and the other side, like my mother, kept a large garden and animals, but mainly fed themselves and not others.

I know it's going to be harder, but I also know that anything that is worthwhile is worth struggling for. I also know that keeping animals and growing plants is in my blood, and their is nothing on this world that makes me so happy as to be with my goats, or working in the garden.

I wish people would stop saying that if you're going to be a farmer, you need to specialize in one thing (or at most two or three). They seem to think that that is the only way to make your way as a farmer, but I see it as a trap. You have one bad year, or five bad years, and you're dead. If you have several main crops which are making up the majority of your income, the chances that they'll all have a bad year all at once are dramatically reduced. Besides, I think it's more interesting to be growing a multitude of things, rather than one large monocrop. Clearly the current system is not a good system for the farmer; which makes me wonder why any one would encourage a farmer to keep following it.

I also think that it's probably a good idea to use your head as much as you can to avoid physical risk and damage. I certainly don't think it is necessary to break down your body in order to farm. Nor do I think a desk job is the healthiest. Perhaps I'm just young, stubborn, and idealistic, but perhaps I'm right.

Nor do I think that large farms are a necessity. It seems to me as more people move back to farming, the smaller the farms will become. There are many people out there making their living off of 10, 5, 1 or even 1/2 of an acre. Of course, these tend to be very integrated, ecological and healthy farms.

And, I for one, do not mind being on the farm at 7 am and 7 pm to milk the goats. I don't need a vacation from heaven.

I grew up on a farm in Iowa. My father recently 'retired'. He is 84. He is currently renting out the land to a young farmer trying to get started. I have friends who started farming and co-workers who married farmers. They have gone a million dollars or so into debt buying land and are hoping to be able to make enough profit to keep up their mortgage payments. With the weather becoming more and more unpredictable, farming is becoming one of the biggest gambling operations outside of Las Vegas.
Did I stay on the farm to continue the tradition? No. I went to school and now have a job in healthcare. We recently purchased an acreage near where I work so we can start becoming more self sufficient. Somewhere in the back of our minds, my husband and I have contemplated going back to the farm- but it isn't economically feasible for us, even with having land already in the family. Having grown up with conventional farming, it isn't something I totally agree with since I don't see it as sustainable in the long run but right now, the alternatives here and now aren't promising. In the future, maybe. I have a son who loves the land and the outdoors so maybe....

Thanks DC for clearing up the tractor thing - I too have thought about this - an electric tractor (using batteries) makes way more sense than an electric car for instance. You want the weight, electric motors excel at full torque at low speed, usage profile is ideal (intermittent), they never stray too far from home (ie. their plug in), charge them via PV or grid as you like, then add an inverter and you have gobs of 110V power for e-tools (chainsaw?) anywhere you can drive it to.

By Third Chimp (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

Sharon many thanks from those of us who live on The Little Farm at the Bottom of the Hill ( got to shorten that down) for all that you do.
Here's an invite for you, and rays of hope.
At our community college here in Chatham County,NC...Central Carolina Community College...we have what is, as best I can determine, the only 2 year sustainable ag community college program in the US. But wait. There's more. We have a county ag agent whose purpose is to support and mentor small farms. Her name is Debbie Roos, her site is called Growing Small Farms.
It gets better yet. We have a growing number of YOUNG small farmers in Chatham county. You will particularly like their crop mob concept. They get together on a local farm and tackle a variety of farm jobs...sweet potato harvest,fence building, spreading manure,whatever needs doing, then cook a big (local food)meal and party down.
Chatham remains largely rural,even though we sitteth in the backyard of 3 major universities.NC State, dubbed "The Cow College".That would be our state 4 year ag school.Then there's UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke.
CSA's and farmers markets abound and do good business.
Ahh but there's more.Piedmont Biofarm is right down the road from the community college and is managed by farmer Doug Jones who used to head the sustainable ag program. Biofarm does internships.
The invite to you and your readers is to come on over and take a look at us. Then start spreading the gospel. Every community college needs a sustainable ag program. Ours focuses on market farmers and CSA's, but has diverse electives including animal husbandry and wildcrafting.
It is our young farmers with their verve and their pure joy in learning farming who will be like the proverbial pebbles tossed in the pond. The ripples will go out.
You owe it to yourself to go to Trace Ramsey's blog, Cricket Bread.

Ecology Student: "Perhaps I'm just young, stubborn, and idealistic, but perhaps I'm right."

:-) Perhaps you are.

And you're not alone, thank goodness. My own son grew up here- under conditions our mainstream farmer neighbors goggle at- and he has come back, to stay.

"Nor do I think that large farms are a necessity. It seems to me as more people move back to farming, the smaller the farms will become."

I find a good argument on this subject is - Europe. They've been at this all longer than we have, yes? Average size in Europe- 20 ha. In England- 50 ha. Ireland/Wales; 40. Obviously, farming in all those countries is impossible, and extinct. According to our dogmas. Impossible. Wonder how they do it?


D.C.- curses. If it's batteries that's needed, that means Carebear was right. Again.

Greenpa- a horse *would* be more fun. Just to note, I wasn't really expecting to be able to approach 100%- my point was just that thermodynamic limits are very different from engineering/material limits.
Also, biological systems are inefficient where they can get away with it. If you want impressive use of light, we'll need to harvest the weird photosynthesizers at the almost-too-deep-for-light parts of the ocean. As soon as we figure out how to hook them up to tractors, we're all set...
/mad scientist

Sharon- Incidently, it's more *healthy* human years rather than lifespan per se that I think we can increase without worrying at all about violating any rules of biology. Precisely because I think we'll *need* to have some level of increase in physically active labor in things like farming. And another reason why I think everyone should be involved in it.

I can certainly believe that many (most?) Boomers want to retire in their 60s. But they also want to live longer than their parents. Worse, they don't want reform enough to get the political s*** together to make healthcare sustainable. A bad combination of wants. Also, in fairness, I'm not sure how much of the orientation toward retirement is the direct result of people being trapped in lousy soul-sucking jobs in order to get healthcare, or delusional superstition about old dogs and new tricks. Both of which need to be remedied.
Or I could just *insert rant here* about the selfish babyboomers and the deterioration of community brought about by one generation thinking that neither their parents nor their kids matter a whit. I'm willing to sacrifice now so my kids don't have to (particularly since waiting might make it worse), but I'm not going to do it without some cathartic venting of my spleen about previous generations who couldn't sack up enough to start real reform.

I have a dream, a dream that one day all baby boomer tenured math professors will direct their efforts for good and not evil, and come up with a way to manufacture my d*** cheesy poofs at home. It's a simple dream, but a beautiful one.

I've been reading some of the posts and comments on this blog, and they are intelligent, thoughtful, and thought-provoking - and so depressing that I desperately hope that the vision of the future offered here turns out to be inaccurate.

Part of the reason for this is personal - I'm a dyed-in-the-wool suburbanite who loves the suburbs and has never lived in either a rural or urban setting. I work at a historical society/archive and lead a mostly sedentary life where my favorite free time activity is reading. I'm one of those weirdos who actually likes the taste of highly processed foods much better than natural ones. I used to grow a vegetable garden because I liked the plants, but I never actually ate anything from it - I gave everything away and then went to eat Cheezits or Doritos. Not surprisingly, going back to something like the life of a 19th century farmer with a little more technology would be a heck of a change for me, and one that would be very painful, to put it mildly.

On a much larger scale, however, this sounds so depressing to me because it seems like most of you are talking about the death of the dream of a consistently improving standard of living for humanity as a whole. When I was growing up, I assumed that if the human race as a whole could be said to have a purpose, that purpose was gradually improving everyone's living standard. I thought that the goal was that each generation would have more material comfort, more free time, and more freedom and opportunity in their lives than the one that lived before it. Some parts of the world were way ahead of others, but surely everybody everywhere would ultimately reach at least a middle-class standard of living. What I'm basically reading here is that this goal is not only impossible, but that in fact everyone will have to do the opposite - go back to being subsistence farmers in an 18th or 19th century economy where most people have to spend most of their time and energy on just getting basic food and shelter. From my perspective, that seems like quite a downer, to put it mildly. That's why, although I admire people who try to be more self-sufficient and less wasteful, I desperately hope that your vision of the future turns out to be too pessimistic.

In any case, if you're right it sounds like I need to start growing a lot more vegetables - and learn how to cook and eat them as well!

Hello Again.

The small rant -

I don't think there is a magic bullet to solve some future calamity. There are a few things I don't understand. For you Sharon, how many acres IS a small farm? I still believe that for stables, larger farms are more economical and viable, and for short crops, local farms, or a home garden is good enough for those who have the land. I love my local farm market. It sells the leftovers from peoples gardens not from any small farms. I have a more difficult time understanding animal husbandry. The calorie intake of the the animal and the calories provided by the animal is crazy. Usually proportional to the size of the animal. But heck, I enjoy a good steak, so thats more of a economy(agri-business) then of self-sustainability.

Soil Depletion - Sharon, Im looking for some peer-reviewed or direct data showing the impact of (recent)modern large farms in the United States? I cant find any.

Comment # 47 - Just a litle info http://www.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/questions/farming.html it might be that the parcels are parced out, but the farming is actually not done by mom and pop.

Sharon - With just the income from your farm, would you consider yourself economically viable? (could you still enjoy the creature comforts that someone with just a normal office job in the city be able to afford?) I know there are bountless other comforts that one can find on a farm. (just trying to make it simple)

Anyone look into vertical farming as a solution? http://www.verticalfarm.com/

And regarding Africa - I think the problems there are more political(infrastructure) then agriculturally(not counting Sub-Saharan :P), governments that are able to effectively govern are more likely able to provide the infrastructure needed to successfully farm and feed.

By Jason Brown (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

Ugh ... that makes me feel like screaming at someone. I'm often seen screaming at imbeciles who have no clue where their food comes from and what it takes to provide it and yet they have an instant "solution" for complex problems.

Don't worry about N2O emissions (or methane for that matter) as a contributor to global warming; the combined contribution of an increase in all "greenhouse gases" other than water and CO2 only amount to a teeny tiny fraction of the warming due to CO2. N2O is also rapidly destroyed at altitudes above the troposphere so the increase within the troposphere depends primarily on increase in production of N2O - once your N2O production stabilizes, the atmospheric N2O will also stabilize in a matter of a few years. CO2 hangs around a long time though.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

Sharon, Great post. I have so many responses and agreements - just amazing.

A small response. Your comment about being 13 and believing the adults - I think you are right, but should narrow the target just a bit. I think schools today, as for much of the 20th century, have deliberately meant to engineer a liberally conceived version of society. They teach specific perspectives and values that often differ from the local community - especially since the establishment of the US Department of Education. The Democratic party, especially, as well as labor unions, have deliberately and intentionally slanted material to reflect the goals of special interests.

I think two concepts that arose after WWII have been especially destructive of American society, even as they promoted growth of the American economy and aspirations of individual Americans. First is the single family dwelling. Mixed generation homes have been the norm for much of human civilization; creating the urban myth of needing to live apart from parents, that severance of cultural ties and generational flows of wisdom, knowledge, and guidance have been enormously harmful to society. The other damaging is that school makes won "better", and that that achieving one's personal best is necessary for society. Again, this severs the individual's ties to community, cultural background, and family.

Don't forget that farmers use tools. As a for-instance - look at the cost of a broad fork! Times 100 million! If the number of farmers is to grow greatly, then the railroads that used to gather in and distribute grain should be rebuilt - possibly as human, horse/mule/oxen, solar, or wind powered. Maybe wood burning steam. Soot settles out in a month, I hear. But whether broad forks, trains, or just 1 million or 10 million or 100 million houses - and fences, and pitch forks and scythes (I wish I could find someone to teach me to use mine well!), that is a *lot* of tools and other resources to provide.

I get this image of part of a solution to finding new farmers - once you fix the land and facilities problems, that is. That is to form a version of transition community where new farms are to establish - a return of the farming village concept. Start out with the village holding title to lands around for a couple of miles, partition it out among farmers. Include in the village a store, storekeeper, mender/welder, baker, grocer, shipping agent, healer, etc. And houses for farmers that don't choose to build a house on "their" land. Communal water and sewer/humanure makes sense, starting out with communal care of livestock and schooling of children make sense - for starting up on a budget. Care has to be taken to avoid constraining change, as directions, interests, and needs develop.

I would imagine that the Salvation Army, for one, would be an excellent resource for recommending applicants for a new homestead program. Also the Department of Defense, for returning veterans "It ain't glamorous, but there ain't no Sargent, and you won't get fired. And you can grow what you want to eat."

I was a Protestant at the time I graduated college. I recall encountering a Jesuit priest recruiting on campus, about 90 minutes after graduation - who didn't care about my religion, if I was interested. I still marvel at that one. But sending offer letters to graduated liberal arts majors and their parents, a month after graduation, might be productive, or posting with the placement office on campus.

I have been interested in draft horses for the last decade or more. I have to say, that apprenticing to learn farming is a mixed blessing. Because some significant part of every farmer and rancher's "know how" is suspect or wrong. Some additional aspect is specific to the current farm, the climate of the previous 5 years, the evolution of farm programs over the preceding several years, and the current (partial) understanding of prevailing markets. And neither the farmer/rancher nor the apprentice will know, at the time, which guidance and explanation is pertinent, which is overcome by events, and which is misleading. I am told that the USDA set up county fairs, back in the day, to compare farming practices. That local comparison of yields, and quality of produce, would demonstrate what worked well in that area, and let farmers know what practices worked better in that area. That is, it took community evaluation, to help the farmer find the "better" course. I think there will have to be some explicit version of cultural/societal/community involvement to fill that leavening factor, in making farming a success. Skilled farmers use coffee shops, popular neighbor's houses, farm auctions, fairs, just about any place two farmers come together, to compare and evaluate crops, practices, equipment, and the weather. You might see one farmer out in one field, but it is a community of farmers that make any of them a success.

Thanks for this piece, Sharon.

There is clearly an issue with over centralisation in America as everyone chased the dollar. Do we have information on what is a "good" amount of centralisation in this case?

Although it is being eroded and suffers from similar "farm work is for dummies" attitude we have a certain fascination with farms and gardens in England that counters some of the effects you speak of. We also aren't as efficient or centralised. Or as big.

I fear mainly though that we are merely behind you guys, but following your lead however. Something we have a bad habit of doing.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

@Fred: What sort of la-la-land do you live in? I don't believe you've ever so much as planted a single pea. You're not an economist by any chance, are you? Just because there is land which is not as aggressively used as other land does not mean that it can somehow magically be used more aggressively. One of the big issues is a lack of enough usable water. In many regions (including huge areas of the USA) so much water is being pumped out of the ground that these ancient aquifers are being depleted. The surface is deforming due to the vast amounts of water being pumped out; with satellites the deformation is much easier to measure and map these days. Water is a scarce commodity in much of the world, and we're using it at a mind-boggling rate. In India the productivity of many aquifers is dropping so low that the farming will not be viable for much longer.

Aside from the issue of a lack of water, technology does have its limits. The genetic engineering of crops has yielded higher productivity due to tweaking for better resistance to various pests, lack of water, salt tolerance (so you can use poorer quality water), flooding, altered dimensions so that more energy goes into food production, and shorter harvest times. While there is still a lot to be done on the many hundreds of crops and thousands of varieties grown across the globe, in most cases we're not looking at huge improvements and the human population is increasing far quicker than technology can keep up. If on top of that our farmers are ageing and dwindling in numbers, we're screwed.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

I'm gradually going to catch up on comments/queries/arguments over the course of the day, since I've got a few other irons on the fire, but I just wanted to say that I really have enjoyed the quality of the discourse here - it is very good, whether people agree or disagree.

Paul, I do want to say that I think coming up against the recognition (and while there are no absolute certainties, the odds, I think, are very good that your analysis is about right) that we can't go on as we are is profoundly painful and startling for most people. I think depending on how we respond to resource depletion and climate change, it is possible to imagine some portions of the "improvement of quality of life" going forward - for example, were we to put the effort in to ensuring greater equity in world society, we could make sure that a lot fewer children die of preventable diseases, even given the health consequences of climate change. But increasing affluence over a wide scale is probably impossible.

And in fact, there's some evidence that it hasn't been happening - that it always was a dream. Distribution of wealth has been getting more concentrated, not less for decades. Real wages for Americans peaked in the late 1970s, and have been declining ever since. Much of the wealth growth in places like India and China came from shifts in working class wealth in the US and Britain. That is, we've hung on to the dream of getting always better, without actually seeing it.

My own take on this is that the evidence is pretty clear that absent a miracle or a technological breakthrough that comes through very rapidly, we're going to see a much faster decline. The IEA for example is forecasting rates of decline in oil availability near 6% - Iraqi oil, which is finally coming into production may put off the decline, we'll see, but only by a few years. And we already know, from the Stern report what the costs of unchecked climate change will be for nations - by 2050 we could be paying 20% of world GDP just to deal with the consequences. No nation can afford that, and the chance of our restraining climate change is looking pretty slim.

The good news is that what you are envisioning as an alternative probably isn't quite what we have to get, either. I suspect, like most people, you imagine that subsistence life is endlessly awful - I'm not criticizing you, but I think that's the mainstream viewpoint. My own research suggests otherwise - and that there are ways to make it less awful still using the resources we've got. Whether we will make a wise transition is, of course, up for grabs, but it doesn't have to suck quite as badly as all that, and IMHO, it is a worthy project to make sure it doesn't ;-).

I think when confronting the realization that things can't go on as they have, and that some of our dreams are changed, or lost, it is easy to get depressed and try not to think about it. But I hope you won't - because in some ways it is far less awful to look at it and think about it than it is to have it looming in the back of your head.

A couple of good places to start for information www.energybulletin.net has some nice primers on peak oil. You can download a PDF of the Stern report. The best basic book on cliamte change I can think of is Elizabeth Kolbert's _Field Notes from a Catastrophe_, and on peak oil (it is somewhat out of date, but covers the basics clearly and coherently) Richard Heinberg's _The Party's Over_. To avoid making yourself completely crazy, you should follow those books with John Michael Greer's _The Long Descent_ (he has a great blog, the archdruid report - don't be put off by the title) and Dmitry Orlov's incredibly funny account of the Soviet collapse and the American parallels _Reinventing Collapse_. If you want a fairly useful account of a pre-industrial society and the real burdens and benefits, Helena Norberg Hodge's book on Ladakh (the title of which I'm blanking on) is excellent. A more contemporary narrative account of shifting to a lower energy life is Eric Brende's _Better Off_. And if you really are depressed www.peakoilblues.com is a pretty good place to talk about it.

I know I just gave you a giant reading list and you may prefer to just ignore the whole thing - I don't mean to be presumptuous. But one of the benefits of being an obsessive reader (me too) is that you can be sitting there reading profoundly awful things and doing what you like as well ;-).


@Paul S,

It might not be THAT bad Paul. I don't really have much time before work to comment much, but let me just ask: Is it really much "worse" to spend some time working at home, on things that increase the household welfare? Are gardens, mending clothes, fixing the roof for one's own, and putting some things in the basement food pantry all that much worse than playing the latest PS3 game for the 13,146th time?

Perhaps Sharon will chime in much more thoroughly, but it's a myth that people back in the earlier centuries had less free time than we have today. They had more! Most subsistence jobs, though they take a goodly amount of time at certain seasons of the year, actually take less time than we spend in our hyperjobs and hyper-commutes, making hyper $$$ to pay for hyper taxes, hyper insurance, and so on. Jobs closer to home, less $$$ flowing through the budget, more families and community to help in lieu of insurance - life "back when" wasn't/isn't as completely dreadful as the forward-technologists would like us to think.

Others, please elaborate and give Paul some hope!

By Stephen B (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

A few notes on the "standard of living" arc:

1) In addition to all of the other arguments why the US standard of living isn't going to be upwards forever, let's recognize that we're up against a "twilight of Empire" scenario: the post-WWII prosperity in the USA was in large part driven by being the only undamaged industrial nation on Earth after WWII. Nice but not sustainable. After that, we went on a borrowing binge to keep up unrealistic expectations.

2) A huge part of the cost of living for the US middle class is pure waste. Co-workers are shocked at how little I actually spend on everything but savings and paying off loans incurred to the ex-wife and the kids' educations. And I live quite well, thank you.

3) A while back, I registered twilightofempire.com and .org -- I feel pretty strongly about this, but haven't gotten off my backside to actually use them for discussions of some of the things Sharon has on her plate and some of the more cultural ones I'm interested in. So kick me from time to time and maybe I'll be ashamed enough to actually get moving.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

Sharon - I am sorry. I still dont get this paranoia.

While Fred sure is a little rosy on his outlook on the future, I believe he does have some good ideas that are being overlooked due to people now labelling him "uninformed".

But I mostly want to comment on the "where will the farmers come from?" Sharon points out that it takes a while to train farmers, just as it would "research chemists or mining engineers"....
Do we not remember the internet boom? I am guessing many reading this are young professionals. When I was in high school and college, I was told that my job most likely was not invented yet. Did we have "website engineers", "server technicians", or any of those other jobs that were invited, filled, and (in several cases) evaporated in about 15 years. They all got filled because there was money in it. Supply and demand.

Further, its not like farmers are not having children. Its just that most of farmer-children are going elsewhere.

Finally, I will (shockingly) support Fred on his Africa farming idea.... - Fred said that we will MODERNIZE African farming. and this is true. We will not make Africa a continent that will exporting grain, but we can make so it will be importing less. We can put some time/energy/money into developing grains that better fit the needs of the given environment. This is definitely not pie-in-the-sky thinking.

By The Kardinal (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

Becca- "Also, biological systems are inefficient where they can get away with it."

oooh. Boy do evolutionists love to discuss THAT one!

The basic answer to "are natural systems efficient or inefficient, etc." is: absolutely every answer you can imagine is true; somewhere.

Most "that's inefficient!" observations stem from badly incomplete accounting. Most. Like the "plants ONLY capture 1% of sun hitting them" thing- yeahbut a leaf is far far from only being a solar collector; it's also a sugar factory, an anti-insect chemical factory of astonishing versatility, and changes its functions not only from day to night but from a shady portion of the day to a direct sun portion. Show me a chunk of silicon that can do the same.

Also, regarding your specific comment, yes, sort of- evolution does NOT automatically select for optimization; it selects for adequacy - today.

However, there's a whole huge division called "optimization theory" in the field right now- stating basically that over TIME, processes tend to being optimum. And they do have plenty of research to show that happens.

Another indication there; repeatedly, as human engineers delve into new processes, they discover that nature not only invented it first- but nature still knows tricks they haven't even thought of.

Dolphins are still much much better at sonar than the US Navy; and butterflies use light management tricks that our LED researchers just now discovered as an astonishing breakthrough-

I no longer bet Mom is inefficient- those bets just haven't been paying off. :-)

Further, its not like farmers are not having children. Its just that most of farmer-children are going elsewhere.

Yes, it is like farmers are not having children. Look at the demographics Sharon led with: most of them are long past childbearing age. Their children (and often great-grandchildren) have left. They have departed. They are ex-farmers. (Insert other Monty Python homages.)

The number of farm families with young children is a very small percentage, which means that either the adult children move back to the farm (increasingly possible, as I note above, if not probable) or else someone else takes over the farms -- which is economically dubious (also noted above.)

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

Last night my husband had the toob on and Jay Leno was interviewing some famous-for-being-famous young lady who seemed to be acting more bubbleheaded than she actually was. But she told him that her favorite junk food was pickles, and when he questioned their junk status by saying "Aren't those cucumbers?", she seemed honestly surprised and confused: "They are??" There's the problem in a nutshell - so many Americans are so disconnected from the basic facts of life that they don't even know what they're eating.


I have another worm to throw into this can.

DCSess's observations on the age of farmers triggered this one, and a bunch of my experiences with my neighbors fell into line.

It's those tractors.

No, really. My father grew up as #8 of 9 kids on a "truck" farm. 1910s/20's. I got to listen to all the stories about riding to school in a bobsled with a hot brick under the feet; and his having sole responsibility for 4 acres of market onions at the age of 10. (If you've ever weeded small onions you should be shuddering.)

What that meant was- he got up and saw the sun rise, most days. He knew how the phases of the moon worked by the time he was 6, and how the sun changes where it comes up with the seasons. (Ohio.) He heard the birds, and watched them change as the year passed. He knew how to handle, care for, and work WITH a horse. And he knew how to work. And he knew, and understood, that his work mattered to the family's well being.

Farm kids today- are really much like city kids. They have the tv, and video games. Most of the young kids around me have their own ATV by the time they're 10; and spend hours riding it and jumping hillocks. You really can't hear birds that way- or notice anything except the jolts.

And in the great majority of cases, they will be told to STAY AWAY from the actual farming- the machines are too big and dangerous- and the field is full of spray. One deviation from that is dairy or hogs, where teenagers may be set to work- but the big operations are all inside, and stink. Horribly. And the animals have numbers.

As opposed to: "son, we need your help. C'mon, and I'll show you how to set potato starts; then you can work with your big sister at it, until you know enough to do it on your own."

The old way- the children grow attached to the land and the processes.

The new way- all they'll hear is the gripes and pain.

I have dozens of direct experiences to back this up. Out of time for now though; have to go get some wood in.

The other factors discussed here in the loss of farmers are valid- but I think this one is significant, and needs to be added to the list. Long discussion.

Kardinle - " Fred said that we will MODERNIZE African farming. and this is true."

I realize this is mere contradiction; but NO- it is not.

A bit of info- "we" have been trying desperately to "modernize" African farming for around 40 years now. See any progress?

Half the reason is Africa- because the damn place refuses to be Iowa or the south of France. Constantly. Really annoying.

Half the reason is US - who are damn sure we understand it all.

Ask any African about that.

Moreover, what I think is really interesting among the baby boomers I meet is that they all seem to pretty much *want* to retire around the same age as their parents - in their 60s. With the exception of a few highly paid emeritus profs, etc... most of them can't wait - they are *tired* even if they are healthy.

Is that interesting about the baby boomers, or about the USA, where people get almost no vacations (and those are unpaid)?

My husband and I have 8 mostly boomer (and one slightly older, with one significantly older, in mid-70s) parents.

Each of you has 4 parents? Or grandparents?

I find a good argument on this subject is - Europe. They've been at this all longer than we have, yes? Average size in Europe- 20 ha. In England- 50 ha. Ireland/Wales; 40. Obviously, farming in all those countries is impossible, and extinct. According to our dogmas. Impossible. Wonder how they do it?

With about 2 % of the population working in agriculture, or less.

I think schools today, as for much of the 20th century, have deliberately meant to engineer a liberally conceived version of society. They teach specific perspectives and values that often differ from the local community - especially since the establishment of the US Department of Education. The Democratic party, especially, as well as labor unions, have deliberately and intentionally slanted material to reflect the goals of special interests.

Aaaaaand we have the first American who hasn't noticed there's such a thing as a rest of the world. *dingdingdingdingding* You win 1 (one) shiny new Internets, sir⦠in the "not" mode.

Real wages for Americans peaked in the late 1970s, and have been declining ever since.

Which is highly remarkable, because it's AFAIK not the case in any other halfway industrialized country. I think it's connected to the same lack of political will that has put the US federal minimum wage at half that of much of the EU.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

Has anyone observed that the brain drain primarily results from the cities plundering the hinterlands? They have been doing this for several thousands of years... yet the townies continue to put down rural folk for close-mindedness *after* they've social-engineered things in such a way as to steal their young people because the whole economic system is one giant eddy! It used to be every small town in Iowa could afford an opera house.... now their grandkids still on the farm can't even keep it going with a bit of profit. This is not a problem with farming. This is a problem with the system.

Is Fred insane? He certainly qualifies under "insanity is doing more and more of the same and expecting a different result." Showz ya... brain drain can happen at any level...

Greenpa - you are implying that there has been NO advancement in farming techniques in Africa over the past 40 years? I would beg to differ.
CAADP is an unbelieveable program. Irrigation technology is spreading daily, and being developed and refined.
Have we made Africa fertile in 40 years? No. Did we expect to? No.

D.C. Sessions - you say farmers are not having children. You mean the "average" farmer is not having children. Yes, possibly the majority of farmers are retiring soon. But there are still thousands of farm families growing, training, and learning. All of whom, if they see the $$$$ will have more incentive to not "drain" their brains into other fields.

Lastly, it appears over at "MiketheMadBiologist" is tackling the notion that there will be a massive wave of academic scientists are 'retiring in the next five years'. Gee...its like there was this boom of babies about 50 some years ago...and all of them are retiring about the same time....

By The Kardinal (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

Interesting. As others have pointed out, it's all about money. Like Wallstreet, it's the middlemen that make all the profit in food production. As "organic" and various high value (non-corporate farmed) foodstuffs become more popular (and expensive) I expect farming to have a resurgance with younger Americans, but the brain drain issue is real and not easy to fix. Scary.

kardinel: "unbelievable" might be an unfortunate choice of words. :-)

CAADP is lovely. You'll notice though, that their website is all about vision and plans. Do they have nice photos of demos? Sure. But there doesn't seem to be any list of how many thousands of hectares have been enrolled so far...

I'm deeply unimpressed by "initiatives", "centers", and "NEW policy partners!". Very simply, I'd seriously bet I could round up 50 African farmers who would say "what improvements?" for every one you could find on the other side. Reminds me of the progress on a "cure for cancer!". We could have a big billboard on that one: "Billions Spent! Thousands Living 1 Year Longer!"

I don't deny that we're doing some things better in Africa now - perhaps the most important one being directing agricultural resources at women, who are the primary farmers. For decades almost all agriculture technology and resource transfers were directed at men, not women in Africa, one of those cultural misses that is just unbelievably destructive. But unfortunately, our rate of improvement pales against two things - the population growth rate and the rate of climate change/global dimming impact on water resources.

Now I agree totally that it would be wiser to turn our resources to Africa than trying to make minute increases in corn yields in Iowa, and I think there are real strategies - many of them pretty simple and low cost that will raise yields there - but it is something of a losing battle, since almost all research suggests that the most fertile areas of Africa are also the ones that will be hit hardest by climate change - we are going to have to run ever faster just to keep up.

Again, I'm not denying that money will be the single most important factor in driving new farmers - but since I'm coming at this from an education standpoint, and we are talking about a multi-decade transition, it is necessary to see rising food prices (which we are seeing) along with rising investment in agricultural education. Facing the obvious (and no one argues that it is obvious, although it is more acute in agriculture than in academia) demographic crisis, the US government and private institutions invested a great deal of energy and resources into professions they foresaw would be needed - mostly nursing, gerontology and related fields. They didnt' wait until all the boomers turned 70 to do it, they started pointing out that more nurses and doctors would be needed in the 1980s, and subsidizing those professions, because of course, you don't want to only have new gerontologists coming in, you want some with some experience.

Nursing, I think is probably the best parallel here, because over the course of a few decades, nursing turned from a position that was seen as subservient, low paying and an alternative to teaching for women either hoping to marry a doctor or an "unfortunate spinster" to a serious, highly demanding, and fairly highly paid profession that employs a lot of both men and women. When I was a kid, young boys rarely dreamed of nursing careers - now a lot of the young men I know consider them. The process involved both shifts in pay (necessary) and also in status, educational investment and a whole host of other things.

The same is true of agriculture. And that's one reason to prefer diversified, small scale agriculture - diversification offers a great deal of insulation against price collapses, and small scale producers often have the luxury of selling directly off the farm - yes, the food costs more, but it also means the farmer holds on to more of the dollar spent. If we have to use a trickle-down system where food prices rise while farmers continue to get an ever-diminishing portion of the food dollar, they will skyrocket. If we can connect farmers directly with eaters in a host of ways, food prices will rise, but much more manageably.

Still working may way through... ;-).


the brain drain issue is real and not easy to fix.

As noted above, the brain drain issue may be easier to solve than you think. Jobs that can be offshored are already being "rural-sourced" in the USA. Increasing numbers of people are moving from big cities to small(er) towns for both economic and lifestyle reasons, primarily because now they can.

Then again, I'm biased partly because I'm planning to become an urban escapee myself.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

I can't help thinking that if there is a decline in fuel use in agriculture, the places that it'll be easiest to save fuel (and replace it with people) are the old-fashioned seasonal, relatively unskilled, roles: haymaking, harvesting, especially for garden crops, weeding (all under the supervision of someone competent). I kind of like the idea of offices shutting down in rotation through the growing season to supply labourers to local farms. Or maybe teenagers could work for a while each summer holiday (come on: it's the reason the summer holiday is traditionally as long as it is) for class credits of some kind or for

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

I can't help thinking that if there is a decline in fuel use in agriculture, the places that it'll be easiest to save fuel (and replace it with people) are the old-fashioned seasonal, relatively unskilled, roles

The dominant uses of fuel in agriculture are in transportation, irrigation, and fertilizer. The weeding and harvesting of non-bulk crops that you mention have always been manual (or left to weedkillers) and haymaking hasn't been manual since before the invention of the internal combustion engine -- horses, much less solar electric power, are vastly more efficient at that than human labor.

Don't diss the horses -- to this day there are surprisingly many roles where they outperform all but the most expensive machinery. Hard to beat when you have graze for them, especially on cost of replacement.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

Incidentally; I have a TEST for those on this thread, to plumb the depths of your expertise regarding agriculture. Answer this question:

In the US Midwest Corn Belt- what is the average PROFIT on corn- per acre, per year?

I'll give you the answer later- after some guesses.

In the US Midwest Corn Belt- what is the average PROFIT on corn- per acre, per year?

Does that include or not include subsidies and fungible tax benefits?

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

hm. I don't really know. It's the answer I get when I ask close farmer friends around here- one of whom used to be a CPA. I'd guess yes- just plain "cash into pocket", after all expenses and incomes.

farming in detroit- new way to look at empty lots

Not all that new -- thirty years ago I visited the GM Tech Center and several of the engineers I spoke with lived on farms. Small ones, to be sure, but working farms none the less which brought in more than beer money from part-time work by the families.

Admittedly, the biggest benefit was from tax advantages. However, you have to live somewhere and the books for the farm itself had a positive balance.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

I don't really know. It's the answer I get when I ask close farmer friends around here- one of whom used to be a CPA. I'd guess yes- just plain "cash into pocket", after all expenses and incomes.

It's a critical difference. The USDA farm subsidies are always justified as necessary to support "the family farmer" but the bulk of the benefits are in forms that are only available to diversified agribusinesses.

In this neighborhood the best way to make money from raising cattle is to rent them out to landowners for a few months of grazing per year so that the land remains "agricultural." The cattle themselves aren't profitable, but the tax savings make the business lucrative.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

I find Sharon Astyk's article and the comments that follow all very interesting: the dilemmas are perplexing.
I think a great book to read that addresses the problem of future farming from a somwhat different angle is "Deep Economy" (by Bill McKibben) which documents an American trend of rising numbers of small farms and small farmers markets as a positive and progressive trend. Small farms that send goods to local farmers markets require less trucking etc. and this reduces agricultural emissions, and, in general, such farms also have an inherent advantage in how efficiently land is used. Perhaps the future of farming is not so bleak (and the future of our climate too) if such trends continue.
Also, perhaps one part of the solution is eating less meat! We'd need fewer farmers if we promoted plant-based diets, we'd generate less C02 and be healthier...... not that we all should be vegans, but we need to face the grim facts of runaway meat consumption.

Re: the comments about working with horses -

One of my maternal great-grandfathers worked his small Wisconsin farm with draft horses (Clydesdales), well into his 80s. Never had a tractor. Draft horses are not so easy to find these days in the US, and even rarer perhaps are the humans who know how to work with them, and how to repair, maintain, or make harnesses and plows. Mules, of the size and training necessary for farm work, might also be difficult to find; most of the ones I see at livestock shows are miniatures, or smallish mules used for riding.

I think there are few places in the US where the conditions are such that one could support horses year round on pasture grass and browse alone. Everywhere else, you need to provide coastal hay and feed, at least part of the year; for many regions and situations, you'll need to provide this fodder constantly. That gets expensive, by most standards. I have two riding/sport horses (Thoroughbreds), and in central Texas where I live, they require coastal hay and feed year round. There simply isn't enough grass in their multi-acre paddock, which they share with one other Thoroughbred. Since my fellow horse-loving friends own a 90+ acre ranch, I have an ideal situation for boarding my horses there, and pay only a small amount above the actual costs of coastal hay and feed each month. The actual costs average around $200 per month per horse, which is not an insubstantial sum. And that amount doesn't include farrier visits, vet bills, or nutritional supplements for my older horse. Coastal hay prices also fluctuate considerably each year, depending on the weather, and horses tend to eat more when the weather is colder (as it is this winter here). I'll keep horses as long as I can afford to have them, but it's a privilege, and a relatively expensive hobby that requires a decent paycheck.

The many flat earthers responding to the issues and mocking Fred here need to get acquainted with the work of Julian Simon. His work has demonstrated that scientific knowledge increases exponentially in a manner similar to compound interest. There is virtually no chance that humans will ever run out of energy because technological advances have always outpaced scarcity. (One example of this is the new methods of drilling for natural gas that have dramatically increased its supply.) Also, mysteries such as dark energy and dark matter will be better understood and they, or similar breakthroughs, will lead to increased supplies of energy.

Simon embarrassed Ehrlich and Holdren with a natural resources bet and his principles have proven to be correct time after time. Those interested in expanding their horizons may wish to Google Doomslayer (a Wired magazine article) and Google the Simon/Ehrlich bet.


I got the feeling, reading these posts, that agriculture remains an abstraction for many of the posters, and maybe global climate change does too. I am an urban escapee, living in a rural area of the Pacific NW -- great country for growing flowers, more challenging for growing food.

We have one of the grandfathers of commercial organic farming here, and there is a steady stream of young interns working on his farm. The interest seems to be there, as do the young farmers-in-training. I believe our food problem may lie more in the area of capitalization and reserving farmland for farm use ( thus reducing the tax burden and land price) than in demographics.

Decentralization of farming, and smaller farms, is the only sane response to the impending hydrocarbon shortage -- shipping, shipping, shipping. Crops like grain, which require large acreages and distinct climates, are fortunately also easy to store and ship, so will probably stay fairly centralized. But refrigerated intercontinental shipping of vegetables and fruit is plain crazy -- we will just have to learn to live without that pseudo-tomato on our mass-produced sandwiches.

As to preferring desk jobs for their prestige -- there seems to be a strange assumption that it's just a matter of time until we return to 20th-century norms. Between peak oil, climate change, water shortages, the shifting of economic dominance and jobs away from the US to Asia -- that's a doomed assumption. With functional unemployment hovering around 25% for young people, how long will no job at all be preferable to agricultural work? We just need to figure out how to give the young trained farmers access to farmland and the relatively minor capital necessary to support small-scale specialized agriculture.

By westomoon (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

JD - "There is virtually no chance that humans will ever run out of energy because technological advances have always outpaced scarcity. (One example of this is the new methods of drilling for natural gas that have dramatically increased its supply.) Also, mysteries such as dark energy and dark matter will be better understood and they, or similar breakthroughs, will lead to increased supplies of energy."

I see you never took any courses in Comparative Religions as an undergrad.

You'll find VERY little support for the "will be better understood"; and "WILL lead to" concepts among ANY actual physicists.

Science just really does not work that way.

I am a rancher/farmer in Montana and find this an interesting subject and one that I have pondered for a long time. The problem of the demographics mentioned here is one that I have lived. It is very easy to cash in and quit farming but very difficult to go the other way. I am a family farmer and feel that that is the best economic organization for a nation's food production machine.

I think that we have gone to far on the road of economic efficiency by size in our food production system.

The biggest problem I see is getting the resource (land) into the hands of those who want to make a living from it.
Concentration of the land resource into fewer and fewer hands is the most immediate problem. That is the factor that keeps a new producer from having the opportunity to gain the experience and knowledge to be the next generation food producer.

It is probably an impossible order for this country to deal with because of our capitalist history, but ultimately, a different system is needed to bring economically viable portions of agricultural land into the hands of those who are able to successively use it.

Cash and heredity alone skews the system too much over a long period of time and puts a valuable resource at too much random risk for damage or destruction.

I have no solutions, but the loss of people from agriculture is a huge threat to our food supply and our system of government to ignore to much longer.

By MT Grassland (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

"Learning to farm was considerably harder than academia, than learning multiple languages, reading Kant or writing publishable papers. It was also a hell of a lot more fun, but that doesn't diminish the difficulty of understanding an ecological system that you depend upon.

...for the most part, we're not even fully aware of the problem. We have no plan going forward. And our children are being taught that farming is unworthy of them. This, folks, is a crisis."

I'm a 35 (about to be 36) civil engineer attempting/fighting to transition into farmerhood. I'm going on the fourth year of this process and can fully support every word that Sharon has committed to this exceptional article. This is some hard sh*t! And at the risk of sounding egotistical, honestly speaking, if anyone can pull it off it better be me or 99% of us are basically screwed; regardless of the fact that I'm growing in a desert. The amount of information and hands on experience needed to even be remotely successful in a truly sustainable sense (I'm talking permaculture-sustainable) is staggering, and at the very least a 3 year learning curve to become somewhat competent. I worry that a third of us don't have what it takes to put in that kind of dedication, even if we had the time, and were aware of the seriousness of the problem. I'd love to pass on what I've learned so far, but very few are knocking down my doors. Awareness of the problem is definitely a huge issue. We can't seem to tear ourselves away from this culture of distraction long enough to be able to interact on the level of building soil - a much slower process. It takes a lot of patience, and somehow patience and humility have to be relearned; the hard way if necessary.

I do agree though - although sometimes it can be frustrating - I've never been more happy or mentally challenged than when I'm working outside with the elements. I'll take real farming over a "safe" $80,000/yr project management job with benefits any second. Cubicles slowly rob you of your sanity anyway.

Calling it something other than the now stigmatized term "farming" might help. Something grandiose that panders to the ego. Maybe...'regenerative development engineering'.

There is virtually no chance that humans will ever run out of energy because technological advances have always outpaced scarcity.

Tell that to the people from Easter Island...oh no wait...you can't.

It is not a matter of finding energy, that is easy. It is finding affordable energy to support a population in the billions. It is about putting systems in place that don't bilk off something else to hide the underlying problem. It is about the fact that we are not just having energy problems. We have water shortages coming up, fuel issues, global warming, population increases. All these things are coming at more or less the same time (and thats no accident)

That new energy might be 50-60 years down the road before any "breakthrough" becomes a reality. What are we to do until then?

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

"I also know that anything that is worthwhile is worth struggling for. I also know that keeping animals and growing plants is in my blood, and their is nothing on this world that makes me so happy as to be with my goats, or working in the garden.

I wish people would stop saying that if you're going to be a farmer, you need to specialize in one thing (or at most two or three). They seem to think that that is the only way to make your way as a farmer, but I see it as a trap."

21 year old Ecologystudent,

You are on the right track. Trust your observations and those instincts of yours and you'll go a long way. I wish there were a few more of you in my area who had the same outlook.

Richard Eis: "It is finding affordable energy to support a population in the billions."

To be a little more accurate: it's about delivering/transporting/extracting affordable energy at consistent growth rates to support a growing population in the billions.

The key words there are "growth" and "consistent rates". It's the inability to maintain extraction rates that keep up with increased rates of energy usage as growing populations industrialize that causes volatility and unaffordable energy. Unaffordable then means investors stop investing to extract because they can no longer predict profits due to volatility - basically resulting in a run on our "energy bank" as investors run for the hills.

I recommend the movie King Corn. It deals with the change in US agriculture since the 60s, due to a deliberate policy of industrialization and surplus production of commodities, dependent on subsidies to survive. Sounds dreary, but it really is entertaining.

JD -"Also, mysteries such as dark energy and dark matter will be better understood and they, or similar breakthroughs, will lead to increased supplies of energy."
Oooeee, dark matter will save the day - and if you believe that one, I've got some prime farmland for ya.

Given the average yard size in a typical US suburban setting it may not actually be outside the realms of possibility to have small scale 'farmers' on the scale you envision without a massive restructuring of daily life for the bulk of the population.

Of course matters such as water availability and soil nutrition may crop up (pun intended...) but given the massive nutrient runoff and water useage at present to have a pretty boring patch of green surrounding the average suburban home it would probably be workable in most situations (given enough thinking about exactly what to plant, and what not to plant).

The biggest hurdle I see to jump however is the inherent laziness of most people (myself included) - until it becomes a real hardship to purchase food I'd guess that 90%+ of people who could 'farm' in this manner simply won't, even if all the effort required is a few hours a week (rather than a few hours every few weeks required for lawn care) combined with the fact that those with the most productive capacity are also those least likely to ever feel the hardship of purchasing food (McMansion owners on unfeasibly large lots)

The farming brain drain not only harms family farming in the US, it also threatens to severely impact the capacity of the US to keep up in terms of agronomic advances - if there is one area where a degree in the subject is more than likely to end up in a job (as far as my experience dictates at least - and a well paying job at that) it is agronomy and the various plant sciences - courses which end up largely ignored by most science minded folk who end up persuing more "glamorous" areas of science (although agronomy and plant science in general seem to me to be two areas in which discoveries which would blow cures for X out of the water - why waste your time trying to save a few million lives when you could save a few hundred million instead) - more needs to be done to bring agriculture, at all scales, into the limelight and preferably in a positive light.

Sharon & Stephen B. -

You've certainly given me some things to read and think about. As a minor note, I wasn't saying that subsistence living was completely awful, just that the transition seems like it could be very difficult and painful for a lot of people - especially people who currently have few or none of the necessary skills because they never expected that they would have to learn them. Also, from a historical perspective, it seems a rather tragic development following an era where many people believed that there was a realistic chance of eliminating most severe poverty on a world-wide scale and raising the bulk of the world's population to a higher standard of living.

D.C. Sessions - Your comment about the post WWII boom being at least partly the result of a historical accident that was unsustainable for more than a generation is something that I have often thought of when I wondered why the society that my parents grew up in during the 50s and 60s seemed to have much more steady economic growth, higher real income, and greater job security than the one that I grew up in during the 80s and 90s (which in turn seems to have been better in those areas than what today's kids are growing up in).

(I apologize for the long delay in responding.)

Actually there is a sort of precedent for what you are proposing, and we Jews did it--namely the establishment of the yishuv in Israel. Read up on Aaronsohn (sp?), who, when he wasn't spying for the Brits, was an agronomist.

This is interesting. I read A Nation of Farmer, loved it,and bought a copy for a friend. I agree with Sharon. Our society is very class based and farmers have always been perceived as lower class (or caste, if you prefer). Except, of course, large agribusiness "farmers". I'm in an interesting position. I moved recently to a property on 1/2 acre with a small house in an older neighborhood, just outside of a city, and am surrounded by larger retiree homes. My husband and I both work from home for very large corporations doing jobs that are considered "professional" level. We make very good money and would be considered to be in the minority as far as our income, however, we live very simply. We bought a small "fixer upper" and are doing all repairs ourselves and so progress is slow. (we also have a three year old, so time is limited) I have a flock of chickens, have a fairly large garden, and line dry my clothes when possible. The interesting thing about this is how we are treated by the majority of the neighbors, those 60 and over. (I'm only 39.) Since we work from home, we dress simply, and I work in the garden during my lunch break, where I usually have conversations with neighbors who walk by. I noticed that their tone is disrespectful and condenscending and we are challenged regularly about our chickens (we are legal to have chickens in our area and there isnt an HOA). I have only to conclude that we are treated this way because they believe us to be poor. Although one neighbor did note that she thought "there was a story there" since we have a prius in the driveway. The point is, there is a great contempt in this country for poor people, and a disdain for those who grow their own food. Subconsciously, people believe they are entitled to treat poor people as being beneath them, or worse, that poor people only "take" from society. I think my neighbors would be shocked to see my paycheck or my bank account, however, that will never happen. I just pass out eggs and tomatoes. However, we as a society need to work on reversing this attitude if we are to have any success in enticing younger people to enter agriculture, or even to just have the average person live more imply/sustainably.

Casey, you might get an eyefull over at DrugMonkey and Isis' -- the derogatory term "redneck" is on the table, and there's a river of denial regarding its classist meaning.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 07 Jan 2010 #permalink

I read through the comments at Drugmonkey...could not find "isis." Being the daughter of a New Yorker and a Bostonian raised in the suburbs of Miami, Florida, I would have never thought I would be seen as a redneck. Live and learn.
We like to put people in little boxes in this culture, don't we?

Jeez, no guesses on my corn question? I'm miffed!


So I'll tell ya anyway. This is a question I have put to 5 or so of my farmer neighbors. Now- this is not "Big Ag" country; it's too hilly for huge fields and huge tractors, and the soil demands rotation to hay periodically. So our farms are a bit more like the norm in 1950 than vast agribiz.

But the farmers certainly go down to the offices at the county seat and sign up for all possible susidies and benefits. You'd have to be crazy not to; and these are smart people.

The answer to "what's the average profit on an acre of corn?"- over 20-30 years, which includes plenty of years when your cash flow is zip: $20.00.

I'm pretty sure that includes all costs; and all payments, including subsidies etc.

And in case you're thinking they're making money somewhere else- profit on pigs right now is running around Negative $30-$40- per pig. Which happens a lot.

Out of that $20, I think you're supposed to send your kids to college, and cover medical expenses. The new truck is a business expense, so it's part of costs.

My response, to all my neighbors, when they gave me the same answer, was consternation. "How the hell can you keep going??!!!" To which they're response was always the same: "Well. I'm not really sure."

Greenpa: I would have guessed $50, assuming the use of GMO corn.

And my grandparents and aunts and uncles tell me it was actually more in the 1950s-1960s--not counting inflation.

Iron-clad feather-feet pounding the dust
An October's day, towards evening
Sweat embossed veins standing proud to the plough
Salt on a deep chest seasoning
Last of the line at an honest day's toil
Turning the deep sod under
Flint at the fetlock, chasing the bone
Flies at the nostrils plunder.

The Suffolk, the Clydesdale, the Percheron vie
with the Shire on his feathers floating
Hauling soft timber into the dusk
to bed on a warm straw coating.

Heavy Horses, move the land under me
Behind the plough gliding --- slipping and sliding free
Now you're down to the few
And there's no work to do
The tractor's on its way.

Let me find you a filly for your proud stallion seed
to keep the old line going.
And we'll stand you abreast at the back of the wood
behind the young trees growing
To hide you from eyes that mock at your girth,
and your eighteen hands at the shoulder
And one day when the oil barons have all dripped dry
and the nights are seen to draw colder
They'll beg for your strength, your gentle power
your noble grace and your bearing
And you'll strain once again to the sound of the gulls
in the wake of the deep plough, sharing.

Standing like tanks on the brow of the hill
Up into the cold wind facing
In stiff battle harness, chained to the world
Against the low sun racing
Bring me a wheel of oaken wood
A rein of polished leather
A Heavy Horse and a tumbling sky
Brewing heavy weather.

Bring a song for the evening
Clean brass to flash the dawn
across these acres glistening
like dew on a carpet lawn
In these dark towns folk lie sleeping
as the heavy horses thunder by
to wake the dying city
with the living horseman's cry
At once the old hands quicken ---
bring pick and wisp and curry comb ---
thrill to the sound of all
the heavy horses coming home.

-Ian Anderson (of "Jethro Tull")

By billygroats (not verified) on 07 Jan 2010 #permalink

To be a little more accurate: it's about delivering/transporting/extracting affordable energy at consistent growth rates to support a growing population in the billions.

Indeed. The devil is in the details. There is also the matter that only about 1/3rd of US oil is internally produced. Therefore transportation is also dependent on other countries being willing to supply you.
Since you currently use more than twice the oil that other countries are using per head. This may not continue for much longer.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 07 Jan 2010 #permalink

Climate change means millions working on depleted soil. Many starving and foregoing their ethics and religion for food.
When farmers slam urban peoples for being couch potatoes, they are not helping the situation. Many landscapers would like to market garden but can't because of numerous credit problems. Working your way back to the farm is as hard as leaving it.