Author: Michael Bredeson, PhD student
Department of Natural Resources Management, South Dakota State University
Blue Dasher Farm
A mere 1% of our nation’s population are farmers, and this small percentage isn’t expected to grow anytime soon. In the five years between 2007 and 2012 the number of “new farmers” (those who had been operating for less than 5 years) fell by 23.3 percent! So what? Why does it matter that as every year passes there are fewer farmers? To begin, there are 1.03 billion acres of combined crop and grazing lands in the United States, or, in other words, almost 45% of the total land surface is used for agricultural purposes (USDA ERS, 2015). As producers retire and fewer individuals pursue farming as a career the average size of farm operations increases, and the overall number of farms decreases. As a result, enormous tracks of land that purify water, sequester atmospheric carbon, provide habitat for wildlife, and produce food, are under the stewardship of only a handful of individuals: farmers. The decisions and actions of this small cohort have immense implications for whole communities, cities, watersheds, ecosystems, and even the world at large.
Media reports that emphasize the negative impacts of agriculture on the environment are not uncommon. A very recent example is the degraded water quality of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers that supply the city of Des Moines. Other instances of environmental degradation through farm management are perhaps underpublicized because their effects aren’t immediately apparent, or their impacts are easily overlooked at the farm scale, but are noticeable when considering an entire landscape. For example, tillage-induced erosion, biodiversity loss from unnecessary pesticide applications, and volatile flooding events following tile installation may not be impressive at the field level, but have additive effects that scale up to situations like the Gulf of Mexico dead-zone (US EPA, 2009).
On a positive note, a small but growing assemblage of producers are making a concerted effort to reverse the negative environmental effects that agricultural practices have had through “regenerative agriculture”. The aim of regenerative agriculture practitioners is to produce nutrient-dense foods while restoring degraded natural resources (soil, water, and biodiversity). In collaboration with researchers from universities, government and non-government organizations, these innovative land managers use unbiased information to develop integrated, diverse and profitable production strategies. Farmers who focus on restoring soil health and biodiversity enjoy “underground insurance”, providing resilience during environmental hardships (ex: drought, flooding, pests and diseases) usually resulting in long-term yield gain. The diversification of farm ventures by leading producers also offers economic stability by diversifying the “farm portfolio”, mitigating the effects of market volatility in a select few commodities (ex: corn and soybean). Looking beyond on-farm benefits, the reversal of soil and biodiversity loss through regenerative agriculture restores the services that poor management practices degrades. If soil health is improved, natural resource quality will follow.
To a rural Midwesterner, agriculturally related events such as Des Moines’ poor water quality, or the gulf-coast dead zone may be a case of “out of sight, out of mind”, but it is important to keep these occurrences in the forefront of our thinking. Planting diverse rotations, using cover crops, practicing integrated pest management, avoiding over-fertilization, and eliminating soil disturbance are only a few ways by which innovative producers are growing food while being environmentally responsible. Managers of agricultural land must ask, how are the decisions I’m making in respect to my farm impacting the world around me? The maintenance of clean air and water for future generations, providing habitat for wildlife, and the production of food are all grand challenges faced by farmers, the stewards of the land: the 1%.
US Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/
US EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency). 2009. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. http://www.edp.gov/nutrientpollution/. Accessed 1 March 2016.
US Agricultural Census Farm Demographics. http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Highlights/Farm_Demographics/
USDA ERS (Economic Research Sercive). http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib-economic-information-bulletin/eib14.aspx
Supplemental material for calculations:
Range and grazing land: 584 million acres (25.9%)
Cropland: 442 million acres (19.5%)
Total US land (2.3 billion)
Percentage cropland, range and grazing land: 44.74%
Number of new farmers (ones that had been on their operation for less than 5 years) has gone down by 23.3 percent between 2007 and 2012. The farming population is aging and in 2012 it was 58.3, compared to 53.3 in 1992.
In 2012, there were 3.2 million farmers.
In 2012, there were 314.1 million people in the USA.
Percentage of people in US who are farmers: 1.0188%