Since the time our kids were born I had dreams of them loving farm life, the animals, the outdoors, and developing a deep passion for the wonder of the land and passion for its stewardship.
Simple living that feels so right to the soul and keeps you in tune with the natural order of the world. Yet, for decades I have been a first hand witness of the decline of rural life. For a country rooted in the foundation of an agrarian society over the last 70-80 years there has been a mass exodus leaving the farm.
The brightest and most cherished resource our farms and rural communities possessed was being lost. The deplenishing resource is the loss of our children. Children raised on a farm who leave and have no interest in pursuit of a career in agriculture. Many leave willingly as they have witnessed the hard work, little monetary reward and sacrifice of their parents. Many leave because of the allure and amenities that city life offer. Yet, a great many leave behind a lifestyle they love because there is not a way to stay on the farm and make a living to support their families.
Of the 285,000,000 people living in the United States less than 1% claim farming as an occupation (and about 2% actually live on farms including hobby farms). There are only about 960,000 persons claiming farming as their principal occupation and a similar number of farmers claiming some other principal occupation. The number of farms in the U.S. stands at about two million.
In 1935, the number of farms in the United States numbered 6.8 million as the population edged over 127 million citizens. As the number of farmers has declined, the demand for agricultural products has increased due to increased population alone.
This increased demand has been met with the aid of large-scale mechanization (the use of large, fossil fuel guzzling pieces of farm equipment), genetically modified crop varieties, commercial fertilizers, and pesticides. The need for human labor has also declined as evidenced by the increase in agricultural labor efficiency – from 27.5 acres/worker in 1890 to 740 acres/worker in 1990 (Illinois data; Hunt, 2001).
It has been estimated that living expenses for the average farm family exceed $47,000 per year. Clearly, many farms that meet the U.S. Census’ definition of a farm would not produce sufficient income to meet farm family living expenses. In fact, less than 1 in 4 of the farms in this country produce gross revenues in excess of $50,000.
As the U.S. farm population has dwindled, the average age of farmers continues to rise. In fact, about forty percent of the farmers in this country are 55 years old or older (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
The graying of the farm population has led to concerns about the long-term health of family farms as an American institution. The picture has not been enticing for ambitious young people to seek out careers on the family farm which may not support additional family units. To many folks raised on the farm it has become a place of recreation, a trip home to see the family once or twice a year and a nest egg of inheritance that can one day develop into the next planned subdivision.
Indeed, as I graduated from the University of Tennessee with a BS in Animal Science the agricultural experts were reading the eulogie over the death of the family farm. The behemoth integrated corporate farms had just too great an advantage by virtue of the economy of scale forcing the smaller scale farms into an arena in which they can not compete. Thinking of just the livestock industry today 2% of the livestock facilities raise over 40% of all livestock produced.
Yet, today we are witnessing a food revolution where a new consumer wants to know how their food is grown and who grows it. They ask questions, read labels, do their investigative homework and decide ethically what food they want to eat.
This new consumer is met by a new generation of farmers. This new generation of farmer can be referred to as grandpa’s gutsy grandkids willing to take risk and tread where the megafarms fear to go.
These guys are selling direct and flaunting the attributes of their products that can’t be replicated by the industrial factory farm system. They seek and find a market where the consumer is appreciative of what is raised with pride on American family farms. They are finding a niche where their farms, their families and their communities can thrive.
This is bringing many of these farm raised kids back to the farm after graduation and taking the new challenge by seriously studying the market and their farm’s place in it.
Our two oldest boys have done just that as they have come home to work on the farm where they grew up. Peter, manages our processing plant and keeps a close eye on the production end of raising our cattle. The future looks bright as he joins the family in building a new way of looking at family farms.