This article was written in 2017. So while some of the statistics are dated, we still believe the takeaways are more relevant than ever. 

As technology marches forward, farms become more efficient, and more and more young people move to town, seeking a brighter future than the farm could afford. But as writer and former American Editor editor Bob Welch asks, what are we really leaving behind?

A Decreasing Population

Growing up on a ranch, I knew when I left home for college, a chapter in my life was closing. Like any 18-year-old leaving home, I would begin learning to stand on my own two feet. One difference for me, though, was the conviction that I’d be leaving production agriculture as a career.

My experience is not uncommon among youngsters growing up on farms and ranches across the country. Most of the folks I became friends with in college were like me: leaving the ranch or farm to find a quasi-related industry to enter (though many did return to production agriculture, too). I chose journalism—hoping to end up right where I am. Others chose careers ranging from the energy industry, agricultural support industry, public service, and even big business. Most of them have remained connected to ag in some way, whether it be through hobbies like team roping and barrel racing or through their children’s involvement in 4-H.

The people involved in ranching and farming—production agriculture—are at once aging and dwindling. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture report (produced by the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Agricultural Statistics Service), the average age of the American agriculturalist is 58.3—three years older than the census 10 years before. While rural counties cover 72 percent of the U.S. land area, those counties only include 15 percent of the country’s residents, per the USDA. Further, only 2 percent of folks in this nation work producing food. Finally, between 2010 and 2012, rural counties as a whole declined in population for the first time.

The factors that contribute to this decline aren’t easy to unravel. The efforts being put forth to reverse it are uncertain, and the implications of the changing face of rural America are already beginning to be felt.

Reasons for Rural Flight

Rural flight—or younger generations leaving the family farm for urban life—is not new. At the beginning of the 19th century, 90 percent of Americans lived in a rural setting. The American Industrial Revolution began shifting the method of income from agrarian to wage labor. After the Civil War, the ratio of rural dwellers dropped to 75 percent.

America’s industrialization was doing two things: First, it was offering better pay and less uncertainty for what was—usually—less labor-intensive work away from the farm; second, farms were able to withstand the drop in the labor force due to increased efficiencies realized through technological and scientific advancements.

Still, by 1915, the population was split half-and-half between urban and rural. However, four significant factors were on the horizon that would continue to push that ratio another 15 percent toward the urban side in the following 35 years.

The first was a spike in manufacturing jobs during the first World War. Even before its official entry into the conflict, the United States economy was benefiting from Europe’s need for wartime supplies. More jobs in urban centers drew workers from the fields to the factories. Then, after a prosperous decade in the 1920s, the Great Depression hit and, between 1929 and 1933, some 2 million people became homeless. They congregated in shanty towns—dubbed Hoovervilles for the sitting president—with no options for work. Adding to the economic maladies were climactic ones. Across the Midwest, topsoil blew away and farmers left. According to Donald Worster’s 1979 book, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, approximately 3.5 million people moved from the Plains states that decade—the largest migration in American history within that short of a time frame. It’s in this period that the federal government first began a major role in social welfare—one that has not diminished in the subsequent 80 years.

Of course, the final event of that time frame was World War II. Again, more jobs were drawn to the coasts—away from the traditional breadbasket of the country. In its wake, the shift in the United States from an agrarian society to an urban one was complete, leaving only 35 percent of the country’s population in rural regions.

In the past 70 years, little has happened to reverse the trend of urbanization. Decade after decade has provided more enticing opportunities and better technology, moving people off the family land to a point where 85 percent of the nation’s population is urbanized.

What’s different now, as compared to even 50 years ago, however, are the incredible barriers to entry for anyone who actually does want to make agriculture their livelihood.

Young Farmers, a Hudson, N.Y.-based organization, recently conducted a study asking what the biggest challenges young and beginning farmers faced.

Seventy-eight percent of respondents cited a lack of capital. Coming in second was access to land at 68 percent. Health care, access to credit, business planning and marketing skills, profitable markets, education, and training were also mentioned as problems for young agriculturalists.

A 2013 article in the Farm and Ranch Guide claimed that most established ranchers and farmers—regardless of the enterprise—have somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million in assets. That level of financial investment, considering agriculture’s historically small margins, is hard to justify.

Taking land costs out of the equation, capital is still a huge requirement for agriculturalists. If you’re farming, you need a tractor. The base price for a new 5E Series John Deere tractor starts at around $50,000—not including all the necessary implements. Maybe row crops aren’t your passion, but you want to start your own cow herd: One prime-of-her-life commercial bred cow—according to 2016 spring prices—will cost around $1,800.

Now, consider putting land back in the equation. The USDA’s August 2015 report on land values found that in the United States, farm real estate value—a measurement of the value of all land and buildings on farms—averaged $3,020 per acre for 2015, up 2.4 percent from 2014 values. The United States pasture value increased to $1,330 per acre, or 2.3 percent greater than 2014 values. The average size of the American farm—again, according to the USDA—is 434 acres, while the median size is 80. Either way, that’s a significant investment.

I grew up on a ranch, but it never made sense for me to be a part of the family business. However, after establishing my career, I tried to create a small-scale, seasonal ranching operation on leased ground, running stocker yearlings. I had an obvious advantage over someone with no experience in the industry, but the costs remain staggering.

Chatting with a college friend who started his own business in the energy industry, we compared notes. We started our businesses (mine a hobby, his a career) with approximately the same loan amount. His start-up loan went toward a few desks and chairs, rent on an office space, and salaries. My annual note went almost exclusively to the seasonal purchase of cattle and pasture rent. My salary would be what was left over—if any.

According to the USDA, only 17 percent of beginning farms grossed more than $25,000, compared to 34 percent of established farms. Knowing the amount of work and risk it takes to struggle to that level, it’s no wonder ag kids find their way into new fields of work.

The vast know-how required for production agriculture might be one overlooked factor, as well. Most farmers and ranchers, in addition to being animal and crop scientists, should also be electricians, plumbers, heavy equipment operators, accountants, government liaisons, marketers, and public relations experts. Someone raised in the lifestyle might have developed some of these skills growing up. For someone trying to crack into the business, there’s a much steeper learning curve. Either way, making a living as a farmer is no small investment in time, expertise, or money.

Making a Living in Agriculture

As outlined above, the difficulties associated with an agrarian career aren’t new. There are dozens of organizations, municipalities, and government programs working to stem the urbanization of America.

For generations, now, the government has carried farm subsidies as one way to make row crops viable. A more targeted approach began as early as 1992 when the Agricultural Credit Improvement Act was passed, establishing the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers. The Office of Small Farms Coordination dates to 1996, and the 2002 Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, as well as the 2008 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act, featured support for budding agriculturalists. Today, the USDA itself offers no less than 30 programs that could benefit beginning farmers and ranchers, including everything from apprenticeships, curriculum, grants, loans, risk planning, and insurance.

Non-profits and other industry service organizations focused on revitalizing rural communities through agriculture and industry also exist. Groups including the Center for Rural Affairs, the National Young Farmers Coalition, The American Farm Bureau Federation, Farm Credit Services of America, and hundreds of other groups offer education, resources, lending, and advocacy for rural interests and beginning farmers. Even local municipalities are doing all they can to encourage people back to the country: tax breaks, and even free land for anyone willing to become a productive member of the community.

The state of Kansas is, perhaps, the best example. At least four rural towns in the state are offering free lots for newcomers to build on. As a whole, the state has designated Rural Opportunity Zones in 77 of its 105 counties, which offer new residents state income-tax waivers and student loan repayments (with some limitations, of course).

Still, while rural revitalization might bring new folks to towns, it’s not designed to keep—or bring back—farmers and ranchers. These efforts do point out, however, that increasingly, young people can have traditionally urban careers without living in urban settings. In fact, the old adage, “behind every successful rancher is a wife with a job in town,” is transforming to, “a wife—or a second job—telecommuting.” The USDA’s Economic Research Service states that the financial well-being of farm households today depends less on the income from the farm business and more on the availability of remunerative off-farm employment. In fact, according to the 2012 ag census, only half of the people who claim a farm income actually list farming as their primary occupation.

That’s exactly how I’m able to make my small-scale operation work. One or two days per week, I’m in our offices in the greater Denver metro area. The rest of the week, I telecommute. While I don’t live in a rural county (though it was considered rural 30 years ago), my commute is barely less than two hours. By telecommuting, I’m able to use those extra four hours to pursue my ag hobbies rather than being stuck on the highway.

One of this magazine’s most trusted freelancers has a similar arrangement in South Dakota, and my neighbor’s career as a cattle vitamin and mineral supplement salesman supports the continuation of his family’s five-generation legacy of ranching with an all-natural, ranch-raised, grass- or grain-fed beef company. Along those lines, niche marketing and farm-to-table trends are also helping keep small-scale and part-time operations afloat.

The Future of Rural Life

Despite these efforts and a few positive trends, the statistics are still unnerving. Between 2007 and 2012, almost 8 million acres were removed from production agriculture and the nation lost 95,000 of its 2.2 million farms. The average farm size grew from 418 acres to 434 acres.

Less land in production and bigger farms point directly to fewer people in the business. In that same time frame, 100,000 farmers and ranchers went away—and none from the next generation are taking their place. The number of ranchers age 55 and older increased by 54,000, while the number of ranchers age 54 and younger dropped by 159,000.

If there are fewer acres in production and fewer agriculturalists in general, the natural outcome is higher efficiencies and more consolidation. A growing population is relying on a declining number of ranchers and farmers to provide their food. That in and of itself might be sustainable. Ignoring distribution challenges, U.S. agricultural production is supplying enough food for every person in the country.

The real question becomes, then, does this matter?

As someone raised in a rural setting, what frightens me about these statistics isn’t an impending food crisis—although that might be out there. Rather, it’s the gradual erosion of a way of life.

Fewer and fewer people work with their hands. As a society, we don’t see literal fruits of our labor, harvested against all that the markets, the weather, insects, blights, and encroaching neighbors can throw at us. So many of us—somewhere around 98 percent, in fact—are missing a key part of our created humanity. The miracles of a newborn calf or a planted seed eventually becoming our sustenance are completely lost on the masses.

There’s something about producing food that makes us right. There’s a healthy mix of individualism, cooperation, submission to a greater power, and pride of work for those who bring forth nature’s bounty.

As our society seems to lose its center and become more and more at odds, fearful, stressed out, and violent, I can’t help but think we’ve gotten a little too big for our britches.

Victor Davis Hanson—professor, nationally syndicated columnist, and fifth-generation vineyard farmer—on his blog, wrote this: “I think our impoverished society reflects that fact of agrarian loss, in the sense that never have so many had so much and complained that they had so little while being so dependent on government—and yet they are so whiney and angry over their lack of independence. The entitlement state is the flame, the recipients the moths. The latter zero in on the glow and then, transfixed by the buzz, are consumed by acquiring what they were hypnotized by.”

A cry for a return to the land is not new—and may be more improbable than ever—but as society marches along, breaking new ground and conquering problems that have plagued humanity since creation, we should recognize that, with progress, something is always lost. Sometimes, it’s best to turn our backs on old ways. But I wonder, as we surge into the future, if what we’re leaving behind is more important than what we’re finding.

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