Feeding the 155

March is when spring officially arrives. This year, it looks like our season may coincide with the calendar. The snow has melted and farmers are getting their tools ready for an early planting season. March is also the month when proclamations set aside days and weeks for praising America’s farmers for our hard work and accomplishments in feeding the world.

National Ag Day is accompanied by boasting about the nobility and productivity of American Farmers. According to the feel good infomercials promoting American Agriculture are pictures of clean cut farm families, happy cows, shining tractors, and golden fields of wheat. Repeatedly the claim is made that American farmers in 2012 each feed 155 people compared to each feeding 26 or 46 or 50 people (depending on the source) in 1960.

I am a farmer and I know and like many farmers. I think agriculture is one of the economic drivers of a sustainable and stable economy. I believe that growing things gives us a particularly intimate relationship with creation. A healthy agriculture helps create a healthy society.

We are not, as a whole, more moral, more noble, or more important than other workers and business people in our country. Every occupation has individuals who cheat, hide income on their tax forms and are seeking to take advantage of others. I know farmers who fit that description. I also know bankers and salespeople who are ethical, hard working, noble, kind and good. Fortunately, studies show that farmers are some of the most trusted people in our country. We have a good reputation in spite of bad actors who load downer cattle with skid steers and beat cows with crow bars. Where does the myth come from that we somehow need to fix our image?

Bragging about our efficiency by saying we each feed 155 people compared to the farmer of 1960 only feeding 26 puzzles me. I have tried many sources to understand how those numbers are determined. I can’t find any references which outline the calculations involved.

The premise behind the numbers is that farmers are now producing nearly six times the food they were in 1960. Isn’t part of the increase in numbers of people fed a result of there being fewer farmers? In 1960 there were nearly 4 million farmers in this country. The USDA Census of Agriculture estimates there are now only 2.2 million farmers. Nearly half of the claimed increase in productivity is simply because farms have gotten larger and there are fewer farmers feeding people. Yes, of course, farm productivity has increased in the last 50 years, but it is  deceptive to claim a six-fold increase in productivity.

This number also seems to include all kinds of farmers. Not all farmers’ production has increased at the same rate. Talking about the productivity of a dairy farmer as compared to a cabbage grower or a canola grower does not really mean much. Some farmers, such as those growing corn for animal feed or ethanol production do not directly feed anyone. Most of us are so specialized in our production that what we grow would not provide an adequate diet for any one person. The number of farmers counted also includes any producer who sells more than $1000 of farm produce. The United States has also become a net importer of food. We import 45 percent of our fresh produce and 80 percent of the seafood consumed. Oversimplification gives us a nice round number and a warm fuzzy feeling, but really doesn’t mean much.

We have lost nearly 1.8 million farmers in the last 50 years. In North Dakota we have gone from 56,000 farmers 1960 to 30,000 in 2011. The cost of each farmer’s statistically feeding an additional 129 people has been very high. According to USDA statistics the number of farms in the very small category has been increasing as have the numbers of very large farms. It is the farms in the middle that have been disappearing, those farms with $50,000 to $100,000 in farm sales. These are people who no longer send their kids to our schools, fill our church pews, belong to community organizations, run for the township board or shop on Main Street. We would like to rationalize this loss of our neighbors by saying that bigger farms are just more efficient. Research by the Department of Agribusiness & Applied Economics at North Dakota State University, however, found that farmers’ efficiency did not vary significantly between the mid-size and large farms. They suggest the reasons for the declining number of farms in this category might be the inability to afford new technology, the difficulty in transitioning the farm to the next generation and generating enough income for both the retiring farmer and the new farmer. Farm programs, a cheap food policy and an overall attitude that bigger is always better also bear some of the responsibility.

The much acclaimed increase in productivity has come at a high cost to rural communities.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains