When you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner, I hope you will consider saying a big thank-you to the farmers and ranchers responsible for your meal.
As Americans, we have a huge gap in understanding what’s happening out there in rural areas. I’ve thought about it a lot since a recent visit to my own family farm located in the middle of our country’s breadbasket.
The life and methods on those farms have changed considerably in the past half century.
When I was growing up there in the 1950s, most farms in the area fattened cattle and hogs on the corn that was grown in the fields.
In the 1970s, that life was threatened by changing customer tastes and larger feedlots and hog operations. The Union Stockyards in Chicago, the site that made the city the meatpacking center for the country, closed in 1971.
Soon after, my father decided that it made no sense to put seven pounds of corn through a steer just to add a pound of beef. Not to mention that it was less work just to raise corn and soybeans and sell them directly. Less work and less risk. It was happening to many of the other farms all over.
A major contributor to that change was farm machinery, particularly the tractor. It was just after World War II that half of American farms had a tractor – the others still farmed with horses.
Since the mid-20th century, the combine that harvests the crops has matured from a towed device to a self-propelled machine armed with computers that can drive itself. Those changes have removed the toil of harvesting and taken away jobs.
Where corn was once harvested by hand, requiring weeks by many hands to bring in the crop, today’s harvesters can harvest about 75 acres in a day.
A lot of paying jobs are gone from the farm belt. When my grandfather ran the farm, he employed countless farmhands over the years. Those jobs are gone.
The trucker who transported cattle and hogs to market? Gone. The man whose truck-mounted corn sheller served local farms? Gone. The college kids employed in the summer during the local pea harvest for Del Monte? Gone. Del Monte’s vegetable packing plant? Gone. Several small farm-implement dealers? They’re gone, too.
Farming has always been capital intensive, cash illiquid, and a dirty business that often requires 12- to 15-hour days, six or seven days a week.
Prices for farm produce have not kept up with inflation, and we, as consumers, are benefitting. But that comes at a price. First, one of those combines costs between $350,000 and $500,000 without any add-ons.
A new John Deere tractor is going to run you between $150,000 and $500,000. and the good farmland in our area is going for more than $10,000 per acre.
What all this means is that today’s farmers in our area of the corn belt need 1,200 to 1,500 acres to make the numbers work. When I was in high school, the average farm in the area was 320 acres.
Most “family farms” survive because the farmers and spouses have outside jobs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that small family farmers depended most on off-farm income to make a go of it. America has just over two million farms, and 80,000 generate two-thirds of farm production. Funding from Wall Street is buying up large tracts of farmland for big operations.
Farmers themselves are getting older: The average farmer is now almost 60 years old, according to the latest census from the Department of Agriculture. The average age was 50.3 in 1978. Thanks to mechanization, farmers don’t need to retire, but they often don’t have a family member interested in taking over.
The bottom line, is if you want to quit your day job and take up growing corn and soybeans, you’ll need access to close to $15 million. The children of farmers who do remain in the community usually can’t afford to take over the family business. Most, like me, fled early to urban environs where it’s easier, safer and cleaner to make a living.
The future of food
Long term, I think farmers and the agriculture sector need to begin a serious discussion with policy-makers if we are going to continue to expect agriculture to feed the world.
That would include a plan to preserve agricultural land and to find a way to support farmers and farming communities. In the short term, please join me in giving thanks to the farmer who puts the food on our tables.
Lynn Kettleson, who grew up on an Illinois farm, lives in Byfield and writes online weekly about food and food culture. You can read and subscribe to the blog at farmboyinthekitchen.com.