An America without Farmers?
E. Popper and Frank J. Popper, Prairie Writers Circle
April 16, 2004
Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever
he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit
for substantial and genuine virtue. – Thomas Jefferson, "Notes
on the State of Virginia"
In 1801, when Jefferson became president, 95 percent of Americans
essentially made their full-time living from agriculture. By the turn
of the 20th century, it was 45 percent, and by the turn of the 21st
less than 2 percent.
In 1993, the Census Bureau stopped counting the number of Americans
who live on farms.
"Farm residence," it reported, "is no longer a reliable
indication of whether or not someone is involved in farming. ... The
cost of collecting and publishing statistics on farm residents and
farmers in separate reports could no longer be justified."
Over the past two centuries, the nation became urban, then suburban,
and now increasingly exurban. Farmers, especially those who are small-scale,
full-time and living on their farms, have become politically and culturally
distant to most Americans. We still have agriculture, but it is mostly
large-scale agribusiness. There is little Jeffersonian farming, almost
no "labor in the earth."
The desertion of the small family farm constitutes the largest population
movement in American history. The small-farmer diaspora, here and
abroad, partly or wholly underlies other storied American population
shifts: the development of cities and suburbs, the settlement of the
West, the late 19th and early 20th century European immigrations to
the United States, the post-1965 Latin American and Asian ones, the
black migration from the rural South to the Northern ghetto, the rise
of the Sunbelt, and even the growth of military bases around the country.
The family farm is one of the last homes of old-school American ethnicity
and beliefs. In 1993 the Census Bureau found, for example, that farm
residents were almost all white, half lived in the Midwest, and their
households were 25 percent less likely than nonfarm ones to be headed
by a single woman. These differences from the rest of the nation have
intensified over the past decade.
Many family farmers encourage their offspring to leave that life,
and these perhaps unusually deferential children listen. Why they
should move on is obvious. The United States is a nation whose metropolitan
areas, despite all their evident problems, can offer better pay and
more opportunity than most of its countryside. This imbalance has
existed for the nation's entire life. But it was nowhere near as large
or visible in, say, 1960; much less 1880 or earlier pioneer periods.
American small farmers are victims of the same impersonal national
and international economics that wipe out small banks, railroads,
airlines, newspapers and stores here and elsewhere. Farmers, like
the others, have responded to continued pressures for large-scale,
homogenized production – in farming's case, high per-acre output.
Having only this aim, their success brings about the demise of most
of them and their communities. American small farmers now appear to
be at the far end of a vast economic shift that gives every promise
of eliminating them.
A momentous transition looms. Although the United States and other
First World nations have been heading toward it since at least the
late 18th century, no nation of even modest size has ever explicitly
chosen to navigate it. No one knows the full implications of a farmerless
America – or a farmerless France or Japan.
Are there really the links Jefferson suggests between farming and
virtue? Does a domestic population working the soil ensure a nation's
social and physical health? What are the international and security
consequences of the near-total disappearance of the farmer? What happens
when the world's most powerful country no longer has those who work
their own land?
These are at least nation-scale questions, ones whose answers turn
the hinges of history. They obsess many farmers, their political representatives
and their intellectual interpreters in this country and abroad. The
suburban-exurban America hardly notices. In its Information Age world,
the farmer has mostly been gone for generations.
Deborah and Frank Popper are authors of 'The Great Plains: >From
Dust to Dust' and 'The Buffalo Commons: Metaphor as Method.' Deborah
Popper teaches at the College of Staten Island-City University of
New York. Frank Popper teaches at Rutgers University. Both are members
of the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.