American Farming and the New Meaning of Efficiency
News Food demands continue to increase while the population of farmers shrinks; the landscape of agricultural work is changing radically.
Today’s farmers are doing more with less — producing more crops on less land, raising more animals with a smaller workforce, feeding more people with less waste. And the world, which is growing and evolving daily, demands even more from this dwindling slice of the population.
A changing industry
In the years shortly after the country’s founding, farmers made up 90 percent of the American labor force. Yet as industrialization and digital developments overtook rural roots, that percentage has shrunk drastically. Today, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, just 2 percent of the U.S. population is made up of farm and ranch families.
As fewer young people drive tractors, sling bales of hay, or learn to milk cows, the connection to what was once an essential part of the domestic landscape becomes foreign. It has made it ever more critical to share the stories of agricultural communities and to convey how science and technology help farmers feed a global population — one that the United Nations expects to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050.
What’s easily unnoticed in many discussions of the landscape is the scale needed to make modern agriculture a viable profession. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service points to the likelihood of low profitability among smaller farms and the fact that they are often not viable as ongoing businesses when compared with their larger counterparts.
“Technology helps today’s farmers produce 262 percent more food — with fewer pesticides, fertilizer and labor...”
For a farmer who is hoping to pass the family farm onto the next generation, longevity and stewardship of the land become critical. Of the more than 2 million farming operations in the U.S., American Farm Bureau notes that 97 percent of them are operated by families, whether by individuals, family partnerships, or family corporations. And most farmers want to keep their business that way.
The task isn’t easy — 10- to 16-hour shifts every day of the week are commonplace, technology is an ever-adapting asset and price fluctuations have a significant ripple effect on the operation, particularly when acreage is measured by the hundreds or the thousands. The large scale of the majority of farms that feed the nation means that business and marketing savvy factor into their future health.
As an example, the nation’s farmers are forecasted to spend $10 billion more on livestock feed in 2016 than they did in 2010; $5 billion more on seed; and even $1.4 billion more on electricity. Furthermore, 2013 and 2014 saw significant spikes in these agricultural expenses — spikes whose impacts continue to linger.
Scalability of farming isn’t the only thing saving many in the industry. Technology helps today’s farmers produce 262 percent more food — with fewer pesticides, fertilizer and labor — when compared to 1950. Additionally, versions of the government’s Farm Bill have been around for decades.
While the current iteration, passed in 2014, funnels nearly 80 percent of its money into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the remaining portions help crop farmers with insurance or guard dairy farmers’ margins. Still, that’s less of a safety net than in years past, when the Farm Bill offered direct payments to farmers despite whether losses were incurred.
The risks of today are real. Farmers are caught between the public romanticism of their role and the complex realities of market trends, unforgiving weather and cutting-edge technologies. The agriculture industry is doing more with these tools, but with global expectations higher than ever, the other thing they have less of is room for error.