Leaving Our Farms

Not since 1860 have there been so few farms in the U.S., according to the latest data from the USDA. That is not a typo. There are fewer farms in the country today than at any time in the last 150 years, when our population was a tenth of what it is today.

And today the average farm is 441 acres, over twice the size of the average farm size in 1860. Even that is deceptive, as a mere 8% of U.S. farmers now control over 41% of American farmland, and their farms are much larger than 441 acres.

As agriculture (i.e. our food production) is consolidated into ever fewer hands, Americans continue to abandon the countryside in favor of cities. The 1920 Census was the first to show that the majority of Americans had become urban. That year 52% of the population was urban. Today, about 100 years later, about 85% of the American population is urban.

Interestingly, there was one deviation from this pattern. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s the country’s urban population shrank and the rural population grew, as people who had lost their city jobs returned to farms. But once the economic crisis had passed, the migration to cities resumed at full speed.

So now we have only 15% of our population living in rural America, with over 40% of our agricultural production controlled by .0005% of the people, on “farms” with annual revenues exceeding $500,000.

There is reason to believe this consolidation of American agriculture will continue. Today the average age of a farmer in the U.S. is 58, up nearly 8 years over the past three decades.

And as America loses her rural agrarian population, the values and worldviews that come with that way of living are endangered as well.

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23 comments on “Leaving Our Farms

  1. Well said, Bill. The rate of this migration from farms to jobs in the cities is of concern. I wonder how the trend compares with the number of people who are growing food in their own backyard gardens. Not that one could balance out the other.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I was wondering the same thing. Surely homesteads under say, 10 acres have increased in the last years. And I wonder what constitutes a farm? Acres? Percent of income? Because these homesteads probably don’t count in the statistics of the USDA…
      (It always grates on me that we can’t shoot the deer that decimate our fruit trees because we aren’t a farm/orchard that makes income on the trees. Though we might be if or when the trees get big enough…)

      Like

      • Bill says:

        I’m not sure how they define “farm.” According to the report, there are slightly fewer hobby and recreational farms than in 2014.

        Sorry about your deer problem. I know that sickening feeling very well. In some towns it’s allowed to shoot them with a bow, and there may be local bow hunters who would be willing to do that for you. But if you’re not commercial you’ll probably be required to wait till the season opens.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That is a good idea though. Bow season goes for a long time.

        Like

    • Bill says:

      I should’ve commented on the growing number of backyard gardeners. I like to end posts like this on an optimistic note. I am encouraged by the sustainability movement, which includes lots of people starting to take responsibility for at least some of their own food production.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Bill for sharing this. I think as cities become more dangerous and technology becomes more where people can work from home you will see this trend reverse some. I think the size of the big farms will still continue to grow, but people who are concerned about food safety will head to the country in droves and start very small farms. That’s my prediction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I think sustainability will lead people back to the countryside. And you make a good point about the ability to work from home helping facilitate that. I also agree with you that the mega-farms will continue to grow and that will continue to contribute to the movement to take back control of our food production. In the end, I predict the good guys will win. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. avwalters says:

    And in that consolidation is the fact that the largest landholders are corporate farmers. Though there are exceptions, generally corporate farmers are more concerned with quarter-end profits than they are with long term sustainability. They don’t take the long view, and thus behave like squatters on the land. Chemicals? Why not. Soil health? What’s that. Why rotate crops when you have pesticides and fertilizers?

    I’m not a farmer. I am a gardener. I am steward to these fifty acres, woods, stream and field. My soils are poor, but improving. It will be up to us, the aging farmers and gardeners to keep and teach the old ways.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Bill says:

      Well said. I’m glad we’re on the same team.

      I read this data in the industrial ag magazine Successful Farming. Here’s their takeaway:
      “In 1940 there were 6.1 million farms (there are about 2 million today) and American agriculture was unalterably on the path to mechanization, hybrid seeds, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides to boost the productivity of a shrinking farm population.” Uggh.

      Like

      • avwalters says:

        As though there were no connection! In fact, post WW2 our government promoted mechanization, in large part to promote the interests of business–heavy equipment sales and to flood the labor market with returning soldiers–to keep wages low. (They feared the kind of veterans movement that had mobilized in the early 1930s.) We were never the victims of “a shrinking farm population,” we created it.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Robert J Braxton says:

    that year 1920 is when my great grandfather died (b. 1854) – without a will – and with “millions” of kids, four of whom went to court in 1922 in Alamance County and purchased the land they may otherwise have inherited (something like that) and by 1972 my father had been able to pull the four shares into one under his ownership (50 years after death of his paternal grandfather), then he died 1988. Part of the settlement (with his first cousin – two sisters) reduced the acreage from 57 to 40.25 which is what it still is. There is no road frontage. When Mama died 2015 May, my youngest brother inherited – and when he announced at the reading of her will he has no intention of “keeping the land in the family,” I offered to purchase. Just sent in first annual real estate property tax (this is in North Carolina). Our ancestor Thomas Braxton died there about 1771, from Kingston on Thames, Sussex, England.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      I went through a “keep the land in the family” saga of our own. Whatever ultimately happens to our place, we’ve at least kept it in the family for one more generation. Our granddaughter is at least the sixth generation of our family to work on this place, but we’ve been in the general vicinity much longer than that.

      Like

  5. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, the trend is the same here in Nebraska. A friend of mine was out voted by the brothers and sisters to sell the family farm. He was very disappointed then got slapped with a $100,000 dollar IRS bill because of the huge lump income. So did his three brothers and sister. He wasn’t too happy about the deal. Another trend is to keep the farm land in the family but rent it out to the larger farmers. In my Dad’s day, it was called share cropping and the owner got 2/5 of the crop and the renter got 3/5 of the crop. The cost of the seed was split. There were no chemical cost involved back then. Today, it’s a flat fee per acre of ground when renting. The farmer gets all the harvest and pays for all the chemical costs.The whole concept of farming is changing and corporations are the driving force behind it.

    Costco is building a chicken processing plant not more than 25 miles away from my home in a small town near mine. It’s under protest of the people in the city but it’s a done deal by the city council. The plant needed 400 farms who would provide chickens for the plant. One thousand applications were received. I’m sure the long chicken buildings used to raise the chickens are provided by Costco as well as the chickens. If they follow the KFC plan, the grower’s profit depends on how many chickens he keeps alive during the growing process. The more that die the less the profit is. KFC delivers a set number of chicks to be grown and will take back a set number of chickens for processing. Any thing over that set amount will be purchased from the grower. Those chicken houses are so bad that the growers wear masks while inside the house. No one can go inside unless they have been sanitized to keep from starting a disease epidemic. I’m not sure about how long it takes to grow a chicken in those confined buildings but it’s much faster than free range chickens. The buildings have to be completely cleaned and sanitized before the next load arrives. It’s really sad what we have done to God’s creation in order to feed the masses.

    Have a great staying on the farm day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      That’s the way farm rental (for tobacco or corn) works around here now too. The old days of sharecropping are gone, it seems. But I wonder if that old system might be a good thing to return to. Young families without enough money to buy farmland (which as you know is extremely expensive now) could get a piece of land to work and tend in exchange for a portion of their revenue. It’s not uncommon here in the South for landowners to be “land rich and cash poor.” Often people are holding onto family land even though it generates little or no revenue and is a tax liability every year. Sharecropping might be a win-win for landowners who don’t want to sell but need income and farm families who can’t afford land but have the willingness to work and produce crops.

      The way those so-called “integrated” poultry operations work is that the “grower” has to provide the building (built to the chicken company’s specs), tend to the birds, and dispose of their waste. The company provides and owns the chickens and the feed. In the case of meat birds they deliver the chicks then come back to get them in a month or so when they’re slaughter size. Basically they just outsource the manure problem and put the risk of loss on the farmer (I hesitate to use that word, since I don’t see how something done entirely indoors can be considered farming). Those houses cost about $250,000 each and most growers put up four at a time. They carry the cost of borrowing with the revenue from the chicken contracts, which the company can cancel at any time. It does provide cash flow to farmers, but the system seems to me to be crazy and unfair, leaving aside the ecological and animal welfare issues.

      Liked by 4 people

      • valbjerke says:

        As an addendum to the chicken housing – should the ‘company’ decide there are changes to be made to the housing (and they often do: such as removing windows and using only vents) the farmer is expected to beat the cost of the ‘upgrades’ as well. If they don’t meet the new specs – again, the contract will be cancelled. Many of these chicken farmers are now becoming antibiotic resistant from dealing with the dust associated with the medicated feed. They’re pretty much caught in a ‘no way out’ situation.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. valbjerke says:

    My great grandparents had a Dairy farm in Alberta – it slowly got swallowed up by the city of Edmonton. The original house is still there and has been designated a historical landmark. My grandparents started a dairy in BC, and operated it until it was no longer profitable to deliver milk – much easier to pick it up at the local grocery. It too got sold off bit by bit – it was eventually in the middle of the city, and the taxes were set as such. When they were both passed on, the original house was purchased for a dollar, and moved to another lot in the city. The barn, bunkhouse etc. were donated to the historical site of the Keremeos Grist mill. People came and dismantled them board by board and reassembled them at the mill.
    My grandparents on my dads side worked land near Edmonton, with draft horses – homesteading really. That land was swallowed up by Stony Plain.
    I think a lot of the passing of old farms may not so much be a case of people moving to the city and leaving the farm, but rather the city encroaching on the countryside and making it cost prohibitive to keep the land. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      That is certainly part of it in places where there is urban sprawl. Some of the former dairy farming families I knew in the Tampa area became wealthy that way. The diaries were near cities so they could get the milk there quickly. As the cities grew the dairy land became valuable “real estate”. The farmers would sell out and buy another farm farther outside of town. And that process might repeat again as the city grew more.

      It’s very cool that your family heritage is preserved as an historical landmark. I wish that sort of thing happened more often.

      But even out here in the sticks where there is no urban sprawl going on, as old farmers die not many young ones step in to take their place. And farmers don’t generally raise they children hoping they’ll be farmers someday. They encourage them to “get an education” and go be doctors and lawyers and such (to quote a poet). So the number of farms continues to decline. But I think there is good reason to believe we’ll see a turnaround as people start becoming more attracted to more self-reliant lifestyles. That’s my hope at least.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Robert J Braxton says:

      FT-DNA (family tree) shows me that I have quite a few links (cousins) Scandinavian (Norway, also Finland) where I had thought all England and Ireland (Scotland, Wales). Finding others Canada, Australia, New Zealand – 2,845 cousins in all. On an adventure / journey searching those ancestors and relatives who farm(ed) there before crossing oceans. The methods are new and exciting (finding everybody with DNA matches).

      Liked by 3 people

      • valbjerke says:

        One day – I intend to get on researching the family tree – fortunately for me – on my moms side, I’ve an aunt that’s done the majority of the work already. On my dads side I have some documents showing the birth of my grandfather (and twin) (of a family of thirteen I think) in Minnesota. His parents came over from Norway to settle there. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  7. You’re probably familiar with the traditional dacha system in Russia and other former Soviet countries. These are typically small second homes, some elaborate and many more just simple cabins, on a plot of land. They’re used for weekend stays, summer vacations, and sometimes rented out. They’re also where people in cities grow their own food. People we know there are closely connected to the land. They go every weekend during the growing season and time vacations for harvest cycles. What’s grown there is shared, appreciated, and quite often preserved for the winter months. Most cultivation and harvesting is done by hand. More than half of urban dwellers own a dacha and it’s said that a significant portion of the Russian diet is homegrown. I don’t wish food shortages on anyone, but I hope the ever-increasing interest in home gardening and community gardening in the US becomes an important tradition.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Bill says:

      We have a friend from the Ukraine and her family does this. Her parents visited our farm the last couple of years and I gave them some local seeds to take back home and try there.

      It brings to mind something I heard a seminary professor say recently. He taught at a seminary in the U.S. and at another in St. Petersburg, Russia. When he taught about the parable of the prodigal son he asked his American students why the son was so hungry that the wanted to eat the pods being fed to the pigs. Over 90% of them answered that it was because he had squandered all his money. That’s how I would have answered too, and the text does say that he has squandered all his wealth in wild living. But when his asked his Russian students the same question, over 80% said the young man was starving because there was a famine in the land. And of course the text says that too (“after he had spent everything there was a severe famine in the land and he began to be in need”), but in our culture we don’t attribute the man’s hunger to the famine, but rather to his not having any money. The professor said that he believed the Russian students zeroed in on the famine because of the cultural memory of starvation during WWII. But I think he was probably wrong about that. I suspect that Russian people accustomed to living in the Soviet Union did not believe that a mere absence of money would cause starvation. They were used to having no money and having to produce food without it. But a famine would prevent them from doing that. I find it fascinating that in our culture we immediately assume it is the absence of money which causes one to go hungry, whereas in theirs it was the absence of conditions for growing food.

      Liked by 2 people

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