Not Quite 100 Million, but It Is a Start

A few years back Stuart Staniford, (who is one of the most brilliant people I know) and I had a lively debate about the future of small scale agriculture over at The Oil Drum. Stuart argued that agriculture would continue to get bigger and more industrialized, because its fossil fuel dependency really wasn't that great.  I argued that in fact energy and environmental pressures would push us back to smaller scale agriculture.  So it is nice of Staniford to note that at least at this particular moment, there's a small general trend in my direction ;-):

I've circled the 4% increase between 2002 and 2007.  Note that the reporter is incorrect that this is the first such increase since 1920: there was a large increase in 1935, presumably due to the effects of people going back to the land in the great depression.  Note also that the 2007 census is just before the great recession and it's possible the 2012 census will show a larger increase given both the recession and, perhaps, an ongoing trend amongst young people of returning to agriculture.

So, we are a long way from Sharon Astyk's Nation of Farmers, but it certainly looks like the giant loss of US farm count in the mid twentieth century has stabilized and perhaps now begun some kind of bounce back**.

I would actually suggest that at this point, this is a voluntary back to the land movement - that is, we are not yet seriously experiencing the kinds of pressures that may drive us in the future.  So in some respects, I don't think the issue that Staniford and I debated back then is really in play yet - instead, the growing local food movement is creating a trend that is taking us in a useful direction - towards more farms - but not necessarily because we HAVE to have more farms, but because we WANT them.  Don't get me wrong, I think this is a good thing, but I'm not sure that I would draw any conclusions from this particular trend - except that doing this keeps land in agricultural usage and begins to create the next generation of farmers - which we need for purely demographic as well as energy and resource reasons (I'm not entirely clear that the demographic pressures are yet in force here either, really - we just haven't fully grasped how badly we need these young farmers EVEN IF we engage in exactly the same kind of industrialized agriculture - the average US farmer is nearly 60, and his or her children have already left the farm with no intention of coming back).

Let us say that we will need only 2% 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.

So yay for the movement of young farmers to the land, for whatever reason.  In the end, we need a lot more of them, no matter what.



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I know that many young people participate in FFA (used to be F.F.A, Future Farmers of America, but like KFC, chose to change their name) and 4-H clubs. Which touch on aspects of modern agri-business, I doubt they emphasize traditional approaches. They likely define "sustainable" in terms of receiving payments from government programs.

A training effort could do a lot. Look at the way Britain impressed legions of young women to take over farms when the farmers were drawn into WWII. The problem, beyond acclimating people to farm life, is that we no longer have the horses or numbers of tractors and other implements, to easily change back from agri-business to a lower tech, lower energy, smaller farm type of operation.

It is literally incredible to me, to watch the daily truck and trailer loads of old implements and tractors being sold to a couple of scrap yards down the road. And almost all is going to China. That means if we have to build new tractors, we have to mine more metals -- at today's energy costs. I notice that the largest farming tractor maker in the world is Inda's Mahindra. Now, Mahindra got its start from America's International Harvestor, giving the brand a solid cultural and technological foundation. But tractors made in India have to be transported here to do us much good -- and a dramatic increase in the number of farms will mean a dramatic increase in the number of buildings, and implements, and motive power. Which goes to globalization, since few of these things are made locally for most people.

It may well be that finding the people for more farms, and getting the land apportioned to new farm enterprises, may be the easy part.

I was just reading an article in our local paper about how some younger people who went to college are now on farms learning to be farmers, and they were all U.S. citizens - I think it's the one Judy linked to, above. I don't know numbers for how many, but it does seem to be a trend in our area as well (western MA), with more folks interning at various local farms or becoming students at one of the local herbal farms. Some of them move on to other farms to learn different aspects of other types of farming and some stay on in our area. My husband and I went to the NOFA conference this past winter and it was great seeing just how many younger people were there -- it was a great mix of all ages actually. I tried to do the herbal farm class this summer but schedule didn't allow for staying the whole time. Going to try again next year -- so much to learn, and yet I also found that I had some things to share too, which was nice.

By Heather G (not verified) on 01 Oct 2012 #permalink

As a "farmer" I think it necessary to define "farming". The U.S. has a massive installed base of industrialized grain farming and industrialized CAFO livestock farming.

We seem to have plenty of corn and wheat, and the meat milk and eggs derived from them. Blueberries? Apples? Sweet Potatoes? Broccoli? And the rest of the super foods? The U.S. does not have a supply, domestic OR imported, of these foods to meet the USDA's recommendations for nutrition - and not by a long shot.

In short, the foodstuffs that can be sown and harvested by huge (and expensive) mechanized equipment (and the animals flesh that can be fed with the grains harvested) we have so much of that we convert half it into fuel. The "super foods"? Not so much.

By Greg Jeffers (not verified) on 01 Oct 2012 #permalink

FFA is still future farmers of america -- around here, the FFAers are usually from ranching families and are doing things like livestock and/or learning welding skills, for example. My kids were in 4H for years, absolutely no tie in to agricultural subsidies ! 4H emphisizes learning communication skills and community service, actually. As far as projects offered, these vary according to what parents in the group choose to offer and lead. Around here, animal raising is not done by the majority of 4H kids. The last project I led was recycled clothing, which entailed shopping at used clothing stores for the best outfit (the $15 dollar outfit challenge, which is a national scale challenge, by the way) and then for those interested, alteration of other used items into a new stylish item of clothing -- for example, my daughter transformed an awful 1980's floor length larger womens dress into a stylish short dress for a school dance. Because of local 4H/FFAer interest, we have a natural, organic raised and fed livestock category. Another mom led a project for years about trash(esp plastic bags), ocean pollution and her teenager had quite an educational set up teaching the public about this. There are categories for organic raised produce and whole wheat/low sugar baked goods, jams etc...But, I havent seen any local led projects on gardening or farming perse, but our group on the north side of the county is not in the farm area

By Debi Baker (not verified) on 01 Oct 2012 #permalink

Where the new farmers seem to be coming from is importation. Except for the philisophically local small farms, all the farmers hired are immigrants, who basically were trained about plants and farming in another country. You are right, there is no value placed here or system in place to learn to farm here

By Debi Baker (not verified) on 01 Oct 2012 #permalink

Debi Baker makes and excellent point: "learning welding skills". More of my work around the farm consists of mechanical repair, fencing, welding, roof repair, working with cement and block, electrical... than of actual "agriculture". The planting and harvest seasons are only so long. The rest of the year has plenty of tasks to be done, and it is simply not economic to pay someone else to do it. "Farming", at least as it is conducted here, is far more about a multitude of life skills than about "agriculture".

By Greg Jeffers (not verified) on 01 Oct 2012 #permalink

There is an excellent documentary called "To Make A Farm" currently available from TV Ontario's web site. The url is

They talk in-depth with 5 young people (two couples, one single guy) during their first years as farmers. All are from non-farming backgrounds. You see some of the ups and downs of their newly chosen careers/lives. Really compelling viewing.

We will see more gardeners...not necessarily more farmers. The pressures that burden farmers such as fuel costs, labor costs, transportation issues, do not affect gardeners as much, if at all. The gardens that will be most useful and successful will be much more than plots of annuals.