The Future of American Farming

Fresh from the garden

American agriculture is the most efficient and productive on the planet. Between 2% and 4% of the population – depending whether one counts migrant workers or not – raises enough to keep us well fed, with plenty left for export.

This achievement has a dark side. Not only are ranchers and farmers a small fraction of the American population, but the number is shrinking: the average farmer (or rancher) is 58 years old. The farming population is not being maintained or renewed.

The United States is growing huge crops, but it is not growing farmers.

The reasons for this have been discussed elsewhere: agricultural concentration; the rising price of land; the attractions of urban living; the slow death of rural communities, and so on. These, unfortunately, are long term trends which do not yet show any sign of reversing. So what will happen when the current generation of farmers begins to retire over the next decade?

The obvious answer is: the consolidation of agricultural activity in a shrinking number of ever bigger corporations. Many would welcome this development. It would bring in professional management, rational decision making, economies of scale and increasingly sophisticated bio-technology. Consolidation would complete the transition from the traditional – and “antiquated” – family farm to the agro-corporation of the future.

This sounds great until one realizes that it is exactly what was said of Russian agriculture when it transitioned, in the 1930’s, from peasant farming to centralized, state-managed collectives. Farm workers and managers got it all: rational decision-making, mechanization, biotechnology and huge inputs of fuel and fertilizer. The result: a perpetual shortage of food interrupted by periodic weather-induced disasters, requiring massive food imports to keep the USSR alive.

Soviet agriculture failed because farming is too complex and unpredictable to be managed by distant outsiders. Farming takes a lifetime to learn, which is why the family farm has always been the best producer of both crops and farmers. If we believe consolidation into agricultural corporatism is the dream of the future, we are likely to wake up to a Soviet-style nightmare.

The hope of the future may lie in a very different direction, which could be called “micro-farming”.

There is a growing awareness that industrial agriculture, linked with mass distribution channels such as supermarkets, has led to a gradual loss of food quality and diversity. The driving factors are no longer taste or nutritive value, but attributes required by this distribution system: appearance; suitability for packaging and long-distance transportation; final maturation after harvesting, and shelf life.

This has led a small but increasing number of individuals to begin growing their own food, particularly fresh produce and vegetables, and usually in urban or suburban settings. From early experiments a cottage industry has grown, with manuals, classes, exchange of information and seeds, use of communal gardens and the creation of local chapters and organizations. It differs from conventional gardening by its emphasis on both food quality as well as on achieving maximum production within limited spaces.

Thus the experience and skills at risk of disappearing with the thinning of the traditional farming population are being reborn in this new setting. Many of the “micro-farmers” are eager for knowledge, both academic and practical, relearning farming techniques from the ground up, and that pool of acquired understanding and experience is constantly widening.

While this development will not replace traditional large-scale crop operations, it compensates in part for the greatest shortcomings of industrial agriculture: reduction of species diversity, genetic manipulation, over-emphasis on chemical stimulation of plant growth, and lack of adaptability to local climate, soil and market. Most micro-farming is strictly organic, labor intensive and in a constant state of experimentation. It harks back, in a way, to the original domestication of wild plant species at the dawn of agriculture.

Micro-farming is a still growing, grass-roots movement powered by individual initiative. It is likely to continue to expand. But two new developments are needed for it to reach its full potential:

First, a permanent connection needs to be established between the micro-farmers and the traditional farming community. There is good fit here. Farmers have capital and experience but – except in a small number of states, lack the numbers needed for political power. Micro-farmers have the numbers, thus the votes. Both sides have much to gain in working together.

The second needed development is the creation of distribution channels suitable for commercializing micro-farm products. This will provide the incentive to expand production beyond the needs of a single family or neighborhood. Eventually such channels will develop into an alternative to the agribusiness cartels and monopolies.

Russians learned to grow tomatoes in Siberia because all the Soviet government could give them was cabbage, cabbage, cabbage. We Americans can do just as well in our own situation.


(Jacek Popiel is a micro-farmer in Colorado Springs, CO)