Written by Steve Savage
Many consumers today feel out of touch with how their food is produced and are disturbed by a lot of what they hear about it through their social networks or other sources of information. If it is necessary to assign fault for this phenomenon, I think we could blame Jethro Tull.
No, I don’t mean the 70s rock band led by flautist Ian Anderson and guitarist Martin Barre, I mean the early 18th century agronomist and inventor named Jethro Tull (the two Jethros did; however, have similar hair styles).
In the early 1700s, Tull introduced planting equipment that allowed farmers to grow their crops in rows and cultivating equipment for hoeing the weeds that grew between them. This innovation dramatically increased the amount of land that one farmer could tend. For thousands of years the production of food was the full time occupation of all but a small, elite proportion of the population. Starting with Tull’s innovations, Western civilization was on a track towards an agriculture system that required less and less hand labor. Since then there has been a steady stream of innovation that has further enhanced the productivity and efficiency of farmers thus freeing up the rest of the population to do other things.
In the graph below, you can see that between 1790 and 1890, the number of farmers in the US rose from less than 5 million to 30 million (red line). It was during that time that the vast prairies of the Midwest were converted to farming with the support of the Federal government via the Homestead Act. Interestingly, even during that period of rapid farmland expansion, the percent of the total US population doing the farming steadily declined (green line). When the US became an independent nation at the end of the 18th century, 9 out of 10 Americans farmed. Today that number is less than two in one hundred. Mechanization made this possible.
A similar trajectory can be seen for our neighbors to the north, even in its most agrarian provinces. Throughout that history, Americans and Canadians have remained well fed as a whole with any incidents of hunger stemming from issues of wealth distribution rather than a problem of overall supply. In fact the tiny proportion of North Americans who farm also help to feed other populations around the world.
Campbell Gibson, who has retired from the US Census bureau, has published fascinating statistics about historic trends in the vocations of Americans. He got the data from IPUMS. In the chart below you can see that as the number of farmers, farm laborors and domestic laborors decreased, the number of professionals, service and clerical workers increased. Without the increasing productivity in the farm sector, most Americans and Canadians would not have been able to pursue these other careers.
In modern societies we tend to romanticize the lifestyle of our more agrarian past. An example of that would be the image below of people hand harvesting wheat on the bag for some bread I recently bought at Trader Joe’s. I’m quite sure that is not how the wheat for that loaf was harvested.
Chances are good that the flour for that loaf originated on a farm in a place like North Dakota or Alberta where high quality hard red spring wheat is grown by farmers who quite commonly tend one, two or even ten thousand acres of land. In a typical “food movement” narrative that would be disparagingly described as “big-” or industrial agriculture.” Some would assume that this was a product originating on a “corporate farm.” Those common conceptions are completely wrong and farmers find the terminology quite annoying.
Because it takes so few people to farm, and because so few people have any interaction with farmers, the terms “big”, “industrial’ and “corporate” seem reasonable to describe a multi-thousand acre farm. I’ve had the opportunity to visit scores of such farms over the years as part of my consulting work. Whether the farmer I visited took care of several hundred or even several thousand acres of land, the “office” in which I met them for an interview was either at the kitchen table or sometimes a desk tucked in the back corner of the machine shed. These farmers reflect the objective reality that 96% of American and 97% of Canadian farms are still family owned and operated. If they are incorporated it is only for the purposes of estate planning. I’ve also always found farmers to be extremely pleasant people with the same basic values as the rest of society, particularly when it comes to stewardship of the environment. What they do for a living entails far more economic uncertainty than most of us could handle and a workload well beyond the norm. However, almost inexplicably, these farmers tend to have a high level of job satisfaction and remain in the business more based on life-style values than economic returns. It is a sort of cruel irony that the tremendous efficiency of the tiny, remaining farming population leads to the believability of false narrative like “big Ag.” Yes, we are a rich population far removed from the production of our food, but that is not something to blame on the farmers. They deserve our respect and appreciation – not the sort of dismissive criticism that is so common today.
Most people won’t get to go out and meet farmers as I have been privileged to do. You can, however, get to know them through some of their blogs as a way to overcome the typical false narratives that so many urbanites are digesting. I can tell you that the farming community is deeply troubled by the way that they are typically portrayed. Individually and through their various organizations farmers are trying to better tell their stories. Below are listed some blog links. If you still feel the need to blame someone for your remoteness from this critical human activity, direct that at Jethro Tull, not a farming family.
Some good examples of farm and farm relative blogs:
What Farming Is
Ask the Farmers
Nurse Loves Farmer
The Farmer’s Daughter USA
The Foodie Farmer
Janice Person has posted a great list of farm blogs
As has Michele Payn-Knoper
As always you are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you don’t know about Jethro Tull the rock group, here is a link to a sample.
Editor’s note: republished from Applied Mythology.
Written by Guest Expert
Steve Savage has worked with various aspects of agricultural technology for more than 35 years. He has a PhD in plant pathology and his varied career included Colorado State University, DuPont, and the bio-control start-up, Mycogen. He is an independent consultant working with a wide variety of clients on topics including biological control, biotechnology, crop protection chemicals, and more. Steve writes and speaks on food and agriculture topics (Applied Mythology blog) and does a bi-weekly podcast called POPAgriculture for the CropLife Foundation.