Lately I have been thinking about factors that drive change in agriculture and I have noticed a pattern to certain types of agricultural data plotted over time. Take a look at the plot below. What do you think it describes? The pattern is what is called exponential decay. An exponential decay function can be used to describe something that declines rapidly over time.
In fact, this is a plot of the number of farms in the United States from 1935 to 1997 taken from U.S. agricultural census data. Below is the plot with the data included.
I also plotted the number of farms from 1997 to 2017. The USDA changed their reporting methodology a bit in 1997 so I split out the two time periods. Notice here that the pattern is more linear and bounces around a bit, but still shows a general decline in the number of farms.
You could plot out the number of people working on those farms or the share of the food dollar that goes to the farmer and it would look similar. An exponential decay pattern might also fit plot of soil organic matter change over time when a previously undisturbed soil is tilled regularly.
The farming population shows a rapid decline after WWII and the advent of chemical agriculture, followed by a slower decline to a much lower baseline over time – a classic example of exponential decay. In ecology, we would call this a population crash. In agriculture, we call this ‘progress’. After all, haven’t we liberated society from the drudgery of having to produce their own food? Don’t we need all those bright, hard working farm kids to move to the city to fill all those great paying jobs? Granted, you could plot many other metrics (size of farms, productivity per farmer, etc.) and they would show a rapid increase rather than rapid decay. There have undoubtedly been some benefits to generating more farm output with fewer people. But I would argue that the metrics that are most important to society and that benefit rural areas in particular have been declining for decades. Take a look at rural main streets and rural schools and ask yourself if this is what progress looks like. We are witnessing the exponential decay of the American farm population, and it has been a disaster for rural America.
Why is this happening? There are a multitude of reasons. Competition, industry consolidation and monopoly power, government policy, increased input costs, inability to set prices, lack of market access, lack of incentives to farm, take your pick. Regardless of the causes, this decay will continue absent a change in the way we produce and purchase food. So, what can we do about it? Or should we even care? Maybe the benefits outweigh the costs. Entire books have been written about the dysfunctional nature of our food production system and the detrimental effects that system has on society and the environment, so I won’t get into that here. Suffice it to say that we have some work to do if we want farmers and rural communities to survive and thrive in the 21st century.
The first step in revitalizing America’s farms and rural communities must start with regenerating our soils capacity to produce healthy food at minimal expense. We simply cannot continue down the current road of purchasing expensive synthetic inputs to compensate for soil degradation. Following the soil health principles will allow farmers to replace purchased inputs with free carbon, nitrogen, and water from the atmosphere. Regenerative farming principles build topsoil, which will benefit both current and future generations and make farms more resilient. They also have the side benefit of reducing environmental damage, making rural areas a more attractive place to live. This is not an easy task, but many farmers are showing that it can be done and can also be more profitable.
The second step involves the farmer capturing more profit from what is produced. There are several ways farmers can try to do this but it often involves some sort of direct marketing of products to consumers rather than selling commodities on the open market. You would be hard-pressed to design a more efficient way to remove both farmers and soil from the landscape than our current commodity production system. The hard truth is that only the biggest and most efficient farms will survive producing low-margin commodities and livestock for industrial markets. Everyone else will need to change the way they generate income or exit the business, hence the pattern we see in the graphs above. This step is even more difficult than the first, but here again innovative farmers are paving the way for others to follow.
The third step involves making sure that the farmer has the opportunity to do this and that the economic benefits flow through the local economy. This means that consumers in rural areas need to buy products directly from farmers in their area, and consumers in metro areas need to buy directly from farmers in places where the population cannot consume everything that is produced locally. Putting more of the food dollar directly back into the pocket of the farmer, who will in turn spend most of that money locally, is the best way to revitalize rural communities. This may be the hardest step of all, as we have become accustomed to cheap food on demand. The second and third steps go hand-in-hand, as the farmer often needs to educate the consumer about the benefits of purchasing directly from the farmer, and the consumer has to care and put in the extra effort to find and purchase those products.
Step 1 can benefit farmers and society in general, but steps 2 and 3 are the only way to ensure that more farms can stay in business and that people have the opportunity to return to rural areas and make a living there. I have been as guilty as anyone in purchasing whatever is cheapest at the grocery store and not caring where it came from or how it was produced. But as I learn more about the consequences of that decision, I have been trying to change. I hope you will join me in purchasing directly from farmers who are using regenerative principles on their farms. Together we can change the trajectory from decay to regeneration in rural America.