As time moves from generation to generation—from baby boomers, to Gen Xers to Millennials—it seems that less and less is known about where our food comes from and who grows it.
This isn’t surprising as farmers are getting to be a pretty rare breed. In 1910, it was pretty easy to get to know a farmer; about 1 in 3 people in the U.S. were employed by agriculture on over 6 million farms.
Today is a very different story. Farmers make up less than two percent of the nation’s population. It is hard to make a living turning the sod and growing food when you have no control over your input costs which keep going up and virtually no say in what the marketplace will pay for it.
Consequently, farming is an aging profession with 53% of its ranks over 55 years old. Only 6% are under 34 years old and recruitment is declining rapidly with a 20% drop in beginning farmers from 2007-2012. The reality is that it’s hard to make it just by farming. Shockingly, 52% of farmers have a primary occupation outside agriculture.
Yet, in the U.S., we continue to enjoy a stable food supply that is among the least expensive and safest on the planet.
Hard to believe? Well, according to USDA-ERS data in 2014, food consumed at home represented only 7% of consumer expenditures in the United States. To put that in perspective, food consumed at home represented 23% of expenditures in Mexico, 26% in China and 29% in Russia. Of the more than 80 countries in the survey, eight spent more on alcohol and tobacco than U.S. citizens do to put food on their kitchen table.
How can this be possible? There are fewer farmers and yet we still have plenty of food that is safe and affordable.
The answer is that today’s farmers are simply a lot more efficient than their parents and grandparents had to be. A farmer fed 72 people just 35 years ago but now feeds 150, and that number is expected to double over the next half century as the world’s population continues to grow.
This is not the ominous factory farming we hear about, these are still the same family farms that have been the staple of US agriculture for generations. In fact 97% of U.S. farms are still family owned and most often multi-generational, but they have used modern technology to produce more food on fewer acres for less money.
They must continue to do this to turn a profit and remain in business. Profitable agriculture is beneficial to the consumer. Profitable farmers can invest in efficiency that keeps food affordable, upgrades that protect the environment and technologies that ensure a safe food supply. And yes, they want to make a living just like the rest of us!
A turnaround may be in the making, however, as evidenced over the last decade by the remarkable growth in popularity and interest in locally-grown produce, farmers’ markets and CSAs.
It seems that the younger generation wants to know where their food comes from. Even when we eat out, many of the finest restaurants now feature food items that are proudly identified with the individual farmers who produced them.
Maybe the time is right for stepping back and getting re-acquainted with our farmers and the food they grow. Let’s hope so because agriculture’s future depends on consumers who are willing to pay for a safe, healthy food supply and we, as consumers, need farmers who can continue to supply it.