Keeping 'Em Down on the FarmBy Stewart Truelsen
In 1918, an author named Ernest Groves lamented the fact that young people were being lured from the country to America's fast-developing cities. In his book, "Rural Problems of Today", Groves blamed the exodus on the automobile and moving pictures, They created what he called "an environment of excitement, a life reveling in noise and change."
Said Groves, "The faculty of any agricultural college is familiar with the farmer's son who has been taught never to return to the farm after graduation from college."
Groves was right, but maybe not for the right reasons. Beginning in 1936 and continuing to the present day, the number of farms and farmers has been in a downward trend.
It wasn't just the lure of city life that caused this to happen, however. The tremendous growth in farm productivity during this period meant that fewer farmers were needed.
If Groves were writing today, he might be writing instead about the lure of the rural environment. A lot of people are tired of the noise and constant change of urban living, and wouldn't mind a little less excitement.
But what about the exodus from farming? Is it still continuing? According to USDA's 1996 Agriculture Fact Book, there are 2.04 million farms and the number is declining a percent or two each year.
Distinguished agricultural economist Luther Tweeten of The Ohio State University says, "The great farm-urban exodus is over in the sense that millions of people have left agriculture over the years, but there are relatively few left that are going to make that transition."
In fact, Tweeten says the number of commercial farms is growing slightly. Commercial farms account for about 20 percent of the farms but 80 percent of farm output.
Small farms are continuing to decline and affect the overall trend because there are so many of them. Small farms are a way of life more than a business. The operators typically lose money farming and support themselves with off-farm employment.
"The group we ought to be concerned about is what we call the disappearing middle," says Tweeten. "That's sort of the traditional mid-size family farm that many of us have in mind in our image of what a family farm is."
Some of the mid-size farms graduate in size to become commercial farms. Commercial farms are still family operations. Larger-than-family farm corporations make up the last of Tweeten's categories and they account for just a tiny fraction of farms.
The pressures on farmers today are enormous – urbanization, government regulation, taxes and the uncertainties of the market and weather. In order to make a profit, farm operators have to be resilient, efficient, adaptive and able to compete on the world market. With that, we are lucky we have as many farmers as we do.
Stewart Truelsen is director of broadcast services for the American Farm Bureau Federation.