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Straight Talk About Modern Farms and Rural “Decline,” Pt. 1

Blog Post | U.S. Agriculture

Straight Talk About Modern Farms and Rural “Decline,” Pt. 1

Thanks to agricultural innovation, America’s large modern farms have learned how to grow more while using fewer inputs.

Urban and Suburban Americans are seldom well-informed about what goes on in rural America—a.k.a., “Flyover Country.” One prominent but mistaken urban legend is that rural America is in decline because small, diversified “family farms” have been replaced by large modern “industrial” farms. Time magazine said in 2019, “The disappearance of the small farm will hasten the decline of rural America.” This common view gets a number of big things wrong.

To begin with, the “decline” of rural America is in part a statistical illusion. Counties close to cities that were once classified as rural (“non-metro”) have regularly been reclassified as urban (“metro”) because of a steady spillover of new residents from cities. Between 1963 and 2013, 24 percent of all counties in America were for this reason reclassified as urban. Younger Americans may still be moving into cities, but more established American families are spilling outward at the same time, bringing their money with them, which enriches rural counties while eventually re-classifying them as urban. These more prosperous areas are then no longer counted as rural, so the improvement fails to show up in the data.  The counties still classified as rural today hold only 14 percent of our population, and many are indeed struggling, but this is usually due to their distance from cities rather than a disappearance of small, traditional family farms.     

Traditional small farms actually began disappearing in America a century ago, and the process is now nearly complete. Farm consolidations began when gasoline powered tractors dramatically reduced labor requirements on farms. This, combined with growing employment opportunities in urban factories, triggered an historic rural-to-urban labor migration.  America’s farm population fell in the twentieth century from twenty-nine million down to just five million, even as the nation’s overall population was tripling. At the beginning of the twentieth century, farms were employing close to half of the entire U.S. workforce, but today it is just 2 percent. This labor shift proved to be an economic blessing because it made both urban and rural America more prosperous. Struggling small farms were replaced by more prosperous large farms, and the poor farm workers who left made a much better living in town.

The expensive new powered tractors and combine harvesters paid for themselves quickly on farms big enough to give them greater use, so it was larger farms prospered first from mechanization, then they bought out their smaller neighbors and got bigger still.  Between 1910 and 2002, the total number of farms in America fell by nearly two-thirds while average farm size more than doubled. America’s larger farms today—the 146,568 farms with annual sales above $500,000—make up only 7 percent of all farms but account for 81 percent of all farm product sales.

This large farm bias in American agriculture is frequently criticized by those who associate small family farms with important cultural values such as personal dignity, community solidarity, basic equity, and local pride. It is also lamented because farm consolidation also put small rural towns at risk. A recent book by Ted Genoways, This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm, describes what was left behind in the town of Benedict, Nebraska:

The school stands empty and abandoned; the only restaurant has been for sale for years. There’s a grain elevator, two well drillers, a feedlot outside of town, but otherwise there’s no work, nothing to do, no reason to be there instead of anywhere else.

De-populated towns like Benedict challenge my own optimism about modern farming. When I return to Indi­ana now to visit relatives, my back-country detours take me through empty rural hamlets with names like Barnard, Raccoon, Parkersburg, and Lap­land. There is still a road sign pointing toward Raccoon, but the post office closed in 1934 during the Depression, and the town itself has long been abandoned. In the small towns still struggling to hang on, some people still show up for church on Sunday morning, and the main street café still serves some locals coffee and a sandwich, but it seems only a matter of time before these too will be gone.

This always makes me wistful and nostalgic, but I remind myself that nostalgia is just “memory with the pain removed.”  The family farms and small towns of rural America brought painful memories along with the blessings.   

For the farmers themselves, the most obvious drawback was unrelenting physical toil, which punished the body and often deadened to both mind and spirit. Albert Sanford’s 1916 book, The Story of Agriculture in the United States, records this truth through the eyes of a young boy. He saw his mother, “sober faced and weary, dragging herself, day by day, about the house with her entire life centered upon the drudgery of her kitchen, and all the rest of the world a closed book to her.” This boy also saw his father “broken down with long hours and hard work, finally relieved of the task of paying for the old place—just a few months before he died.”   

Traditional small farms trapped large numbers of Americans in deep poverty. In 1910, despite favorable commodity prices and land values, the average household income on farms was still less than two-thirds that of non-farmers. In the 1930s, when prices and land values fell, farm income briefly dropped to just one-third of the non-farm level. On my grandfather’s small Indiana farm, despite the free labor provided by four healthy sons, his net return to labor and management in 1932 was a loss of $1,203.

Life on a small farm also meant social isolation during much of the week, and the work was physically unsafe, with roughly three thousand deaths every year from farm accidents at late as the 1950s. In addition, some of the cultural values embraced by small family farms were far from admirable. Chil­dren were valued more for their labor than for their learning, so education was sacrificed. As late as 1950, farm children still received, on average, three fewer years of schooling compared to urban children.

Farming communities and most small towns in rural America also lacked racial tolerance and cultural diversity. Descendents of white northern Europeans owned nearly all of the farms plus the shops in town, and they typically looked down on everybody else. In 1920 fifteen percent of all farm opera­tors in America were nonwhites, but three-quarters of these were impoverished tenant farmers or sharecroppers in the South, abused and often terrorized by an all-white power structure.         

Gender equity was missing as well. Women always did their share of the work on farms, but a cen­tury ago the role of farm operator was almost always reserved for the man. A popular newspaper described life on one early Illinois farm as “a perfect paradise for men and horses, but death on women and oxen.” Farm children could be put to work at an early age, so farm women were expected to produce children in large numbers. In 1900, they were raising twice as many children as their urban counterparts. Women were consistently more likely than men to leave farming, and less likely to come back.  

It was the modernization of America’s farms in the twentieth century that finally alleviated most of these rural economic and social ills. Farm households in America today earn 42 percent more than non-farm households. The largest seven percent of these farms, those that produce more than 80 percent of our food, are the biggest earners, but the other 93 percent are usually far from poor, as we shall see. The income of this group is often derived from activities other than farming, which is often just a part-time hobby, but they too have found attractive ways to enjoy a country life.

But what about damage to the natural environment? Here, as well, modern modern farming has proved to be more of a blessing than a curse. From today’s vantage point, pre-modern farming methods can appear more “sustainable” than today’s methods, because they were mostly chemical free, but the drawback was how little food they produced for every acre of plowed land. Agricultural output in the United States has tripled since 1940. If we had tried to triple production using the low-yield methods of the past, we would need to plow three times as much land, cut more forests, and destroy more wildlife habitat. Fortunately, thanks to an introduction of hybrid seeds and greater use of manufactured chemical fertilizers, America’s farms found a way to increase crop yields dramatically on lands already plowed, enough by 1950 to halt agricultural land expansion entirely.

This saving of land as production increased was achieved initially through increased applications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, bringing a new kind of environmental risk. Yet beginning in the 1970s these excesses began coming under far better control, thanks to new breakthroughs in agricultural science such as GPS-steered equipment, digital soil mapping, variable rate chemical applications, and genetically engineered seeds that contained insect damage with fewer chemical sprays. Water use was conserved through laser-leveled fields and drip irrigation, and less diesel fuel was burned thanks to innovative no-till seeding methods. America’s large modern farms today have learned how to grow more while using fewer inputs, thanks to innovations in what is called “precision agriculture.”

This beneficial shift toward eco-modern farming will be described in greater detail in Part II of this essay, scheduled to appear next week. The supposed environmental costs of farm modernization, it will show, are just one more urban legend, along with the supposed rural “decline” brought on by modern farms.     

Robert L. Paarlberg is the Betty Freyhof Johnson ’44 Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Wellesley College. This two-part essay is based on his new book, Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat.

Blog Post | Food Production

Straight Talk About Modern Farms and Rural “Decline,” Pt. 2

The eco-modern farm revolution is here.

I argued in Part 1 of this essay that the modernization of American farming in the twentieth century helped alleviate multiple social ills. Powered tractors and harvesters reduced the physical burdens of most field work, but labor requirements were lessened by another innovation as well: the raising of farm animals like chickens, pigs, and dairy cows inside modern, biosecure automated barns.

My grandfather’s traditional Indiana farm in the 1930s raised five different kinds of animals (in addition to ten different crops). The feeding, watering, managing, and cleaning up after all these animals was a never-ending chore, one frequently assigned to the children. Modern livestock barns, which began arriving in the middle decades of the twentieth century, saved labor by automating most of the feeding, watering, and cleanout. In the late 1930s it required eight and a half hours of human labor to produce 100 pounds of broiler chickens, but by the early 1980s this had fallen to just six minutes.

Modern livestock operations have been dismissed by critics as “factory farms,” but bringing the animals into temperature controlled, biosecure environments protected them from nature’s extremes, provided safety from predators and reduced their exposure to disease. Tapeworm parasites were not eliminated from the meat supply in Europe and North America until small-scale pig rearing was replaced by confined production. Between the 1940s and 1980s the incidence of trichi­nosis in pig farming also fell, from four hundred clinical cases annually to sixty cases. The pathogen T. gondii was found in one out of five marketed hogs in the 1980s, but it has now been reduced by over 90 percent. Dr. Rodney Baker, a former president of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, asserts, “By bringing the animals indoors and creating biosecurity, we’ve truly eliminated about 15 diseases and parasites we had back to the 1980s.”

Today’s livestock systems also emit fewer greenhouse gasses for every pound of production, thanks to better genetics and improved feeds. More efficient feed use brings more rapid weight gain, less manure, and less belched out methane for every pound of production. According to United Nations data, livestock production in the United States has more than doubled since 1961, yet direct greenhouse gas emissions from livestock have declined 11 percent. In 1950 the United States had twenty-five million dairy cows; now the number is only nine million, even though milk production is 60 percent higher. Frank Mitloehner, a professor of animal science and an air quality specialist at the University of California Davis, concludes that the climate burden of a single glass of milk in the United States today is two-thirds smaller than it was in 1950.

For pork production since the 1990s, average feed requirements for every added pound of weight gain have fallen by almost half. For chickens since 1950, average feed requirements per pound of live-weight broilers declined more than one third. In beef production since the seventies, every pound of meat now requires 12 percent less water, 19 percent less feed, 30 percent fewer animals, and 33 percent less land, while generating 18 percent less manure. Americans are eating too much meat—five times as much as they did in 1940—but until this excess is corrected the environment will gain better protection from modern compared to traditional systems.

One livestock system failing has been weak protection for the welfare of the animals. For pregnant sows in tight gestation crates and egg-laying hens in cramped cages, extreme confinement makes these animals easier to manage but it frustrates their instinctive behavior and compromises their physical and emotional wellbeing. These are failings that need to be corrected, but that can be done without a return to yesterday’s less productive and less secure barnyard and pasture systems. Recent experience in Europe shows farm animals can be given a good life indoors if barns are enriched and more spacious. Thanks to a 2008 European Union directive, European pigs are now required to have ample light, less noise, more space to lie down, and pregnant sows cannot be confined in crates. To help overcome boredom, the pigs must even be given objects they can manipulate—in other words, toys. In Europe, which actually raises twice as many pigs as the United States, these welfare enhancements have proved to be affordable.

It’s fine to be sentimental about our loss of farming traditions, but we should not view traditional methods as better for the environment. Farms in America today produce three times as much as they did in 1940. If we had tried to triple production using the low-yield, low-tech methods of the past the environmental damage would have been many times greater than it is today. In fact, we had already reached the environmental limits of traditional low-yield farming in the 1930s, when cropping was extended onto the drought-prone Southern Plains. When drought struck the soil blew away, creating a disastrous “Dust Bowl” and a stream of 400,000 environmental refugees. Only after 1950 did cropped area stop increasing, thanks to the uptake of nitrogen fertilizers and hybrid seeds.  Corn production in the United States increased fivefold after 1940, yet the area planted to corn actually decreased by twenty percent, saving land for nature.

More recently, American farms have protected nature by adopting a wide range of new techniques, including no-till seeding, GPS-steered equipment, digital soil mapping, variable rate input application, drip irrigation, drones to scout the fields for pest pressures and crop disease, big data to calibrate an optimal response, and genetically engineered seeds that self-protect against insects with fewer chemical sprays. Thanks to such innovations, farming in America is far less energy and resource intensive today. Compared to 1980, corn production by 2015 required 41 percent less land for every bushel of output, 46 percent less irrigation water, 41 percent less energy use, and it emitted 31 percent less greenhouse gas. Total crop production in America increased 44 percent after 1981, yet total fertil­izer use scarcely increased at all. Total pesticide use fell 18 percent in absolute terms, with insecticide use falling to less than 20 percent of the 1972 level. Modern agriculture is less resource intensive because, like much of the rest of our modern economy, it has become better engineered, GPS-located, more digital, sensor-informed, and computer-networked.   

Modern farming in America has also become “multi-agricultural.” Most of our food is now being produced on large high-tech farms using eco-modern “precision agriculture” equipment, but this has left plenty of room on the land for other kinds of farms, mostly small farms that do not use high-tech production methods.  Many of these are “life-style” farms. They make very little money growing food but are able to sustain themselves with off-farm income or retirement savings. In 1929, only 6 percent of American farms reported 200 days of work off the farm every year, but by 1997 this had increased to 35 percent. As of 2016, three out of five farms in America (defined as operations with at least $1000 in sales every year) were either pure retirement farms with little or no farming income, or hobby farms where agricultural production was not the primary occupation. These smaller farms produce very little food, but they keep people on the land and help sustain rural communities.      

Many rural communities are struggling today, but it isn’t because today’s farms are struggling.  Rural counties are coping with aging populations, job loss, family breakdown, and substance abuse, yet today’s job losses usually occur in the manufacturing and service sectors, not in agriculture. The rate of farm consolidation has slowed considerably over the past two decades, so few farms have been “lost” recently. In 2000 America had 2.16 million farms, and two decades later the number is only slightly smaller, at 2.02 million.

Many rural counties are relatively poor today, but few of the poor households live on farms. Only 2 percent of America’s farm households fall below the poverty line, compared to 14 percent of all U.S. households. The average income for farm households in America in 2016 was 42 percent above the average for nonfarm households, and the median net worth of households operating farms was an impressive $912,000. In Indiana where I grew up, some small farms may look poor from the road, but every acre of average-quality farmland in the state is worth about $7,000, so even small homesteads can be sitting on a considerable cushion of land wealth. Farmers in the state like to joke about living poor but dying rich.     

Big farms produce most of our food today, but our more numerous small farms produce other things of considerable social value. In New England, where I now live, the total commercial sales made by all the farms (large and small) in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island combined represent less than 1 percent of total national farm sales. Yet these New England farms are now drawing progressive young families into the countryside, anchoring local communities through regular CSA and farmers market sales, and attracting seasonal visitors from urban America by preserving a well-tended rural landscape. 

In one fortunate respect, modern farming patterns in America have scarcely changed at all. The USDA defines a “family farm” as one where the majority of the business is owned either by the operator or by individuals related to the operator, even if some may not live in the operator’s household. By this definition, 96 percent of America’s farms and ranches today—including both large and small, modern and traditional—are still family farms. Family values thus continue to fuel the success of both large and small farms in America, no less than they did in our fondly remembered agrarian past.  

Robert L. Paarlberg is the Betty Freyhof Johnson ’44 Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Wellesley College. This two-part essay is based on his new book, Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat.

Blog Post | Adoption of Technology

How Human Ingenuity Can Protect the Environment

Many people feel pessimistic about the state of the environment. Here's why you shouldn't.

How human ingenuity protects the environment

Many people feel pessimistic about the state of the environment. But there are also many who hold a more optimistic view, believing that human ingenuity can help preserve the environment. The latter view is sometimes called “enlightenment environmentalism” or “ecomodernism.” HumanProgress advisory board member and Rockefeller University professor Jesse H. Ausubel, who was integral to setting up the world’s first climate change conference in Geneva in 1979, has shown how technological progress allows nature to rebound. For example, by increasing crop yields to produce more food with less land, we can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. In fact, if farmers worldwide can reach the current productivity level of the average U.S. farmer, humanity will be able to return a landmass the size of India back to nature. Ausubel envisions a future where humanity is ever less dependent on natural resources.

In addition to technological progress, economic development can also help protect the Earth. As people escape extreme poverty and spend less time and energy on the basics of survival, they often come to care more about environmental stewardship. The incredible decline in Chinese poverty spurred by economic liberalization, for example, has coincided with better preservation of forests. In the most recent year for which the World Bank has data, 2015, China had 511,807 more square kilometers of forest than it did in 1990. While it is true that worldwide forest area is slowly shrinking, the annual rate of deforestation has more than halved since the 1990s, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. That is because while forest area is still declining in the poorest areas of the world, forest area is also increasing in East Asia as well as wealthy Europe and North America. While the state of a country’s environment may worsen during the earlier stages of economic development, once a country reaches around $4,500 in GDP per capita, forest area starts to rebound. This is called the “forest transition” or, more broadly, the “environmental Kuznets curve.”

As for overpopulation, please see an overview of that topic here.

Environmental challenges should be taken seriously, but they are not a reason to lose hope. Just as with so many other problems humanity has faced, environmental problems should be solvable given the right technology and spreading prosperity.

This first appeared in Quora.

Blog Post | Environment & Pollution

Seven Ways in Which Human Ingenuity Helps the Planet

Humanity now produces far more food with less land.

Watching the news, it can be easy to feel pessimistic about the state of the environment. Many a leader has warned of environmental catastrophes to come. Pope Francis, for example, has recently said that humanity is turning the planet into a “wasteland full of debris, desolation and filth.” But there are also many who hold a more optimistic view, believing that human ingenuity can help preserve the environment. HumanProgress.org advisory board member and Rockefeller University professor Jesse H. Ausubel, who was integral to setting up the world’s first climate change conference in Geneva in 1979, has shown how technological progress allows nature to rebound. He envisions a future where humanity is ever less dependent on natural resources. Here are 7 graphs that give cause for such environmental optimism.

1. As people escape poverty and spend less time and energy on the basics of survival, they can come to care more about the environment. The incredible decline in Chinese poverty spurred by economic liberalization, for example, has coincided with better preservation of forests. In 2015, there were 511,800 more square kilometers of forest area in China than in 1990. Over the same time period, Europe gained 212,122 square kilometers of forest area, while North America gained 64,410. Africa, on the other hand—the poorest continent—lost forest area.


2. To illustrate the divergent trends in Europe and Africa, it is also helpful to look at how forest area has changed as a share of total land area. This measure makes it easier to compare the continents despite their very different sizes. While the change is very slight in percentage terms (please note the Y axis scale), the direction of the trends over the last two decades is clear.


3. Not only does prosperity enable more people to care about the environment, but wealthy countries also have access to better and greener technology. As a result, many now use water much more efficiently than in the past. Consider Western Europe. According to data from the World Bank, between 1982 and 2014, Ireland increased its water productivity—the amount of GDP generated per unit of freshwater withdrawal—by 321%, while the United Kingdom’s rose by 243%.


4. Better technology has also allowed wealthy countries to reduce cropland erosion. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wind erosion of cropland in the United States decreased from 3.3 tons per acre in 1982 to 2.1 in 2007. Water erosion, similarly, fell from 4 tons per acre to 2.7 over the same time period.


5. Thanks to this reduction in erosion and numerous other agricultural productivity-boosting measures, humanity now produces far more food with less land. Between 1961 and 2014, global cereal yields per unit of land increased by 154%. If farmers worldwide can reach the productivity of the US farmer, humanity will be able to return a landmass the size of India back to nature.


6. Technology has not only allowed humanity to use water and land more efficiently, but it has also enabled us to reduce pollution of the air. Agricultural processes now emit far fewer greenhouse gases, even while producing more food than ever before and bringing hunger to an all-time low. In the countries surveyed by the United Nations, from 1980 to 2012 total emissions fell by almost 340 thousand gigagrams of carbon dioxide equivalent.


7. Looking beyond agriculture, overall harmful emissions in the United States have actually fallen relative to the growth of the population, of GDP and of the number of vehicle miles traveled. Globally, emissions have also decreased somewhat relative to GDP.


This article first appeared in CapX.