The New York Times reported that in 1920, nearly 30.2% of the U.S. population was working on a farm, but as of 2012, the Federal Reserve said that number was down to nearly 1.5%. The World Population Clock shows that during that time, the world population ballooned from roughly 1.8 billion people to 7.7 billion. The agricultural industry adapted to this population spike through technological innovation and farm consolidation. According to The Washington Post, the number of individual farms has steadily decreased while the average size of farms has grown exponentially. The Washington Post also reported that the largest 10% of farms in America control nearly 70% of the total cropland available in the country. Many of these farms grew to this size through consolidation, which has presented an entirely new set of problems; however, this pressing situation presents an opportunity to solve many problems for millennials.
As farming has consolidated into massive operations in the central U.S., it’s created a slew of problems, one of which is the over-reliance of population centers and areas far away from what Slate describes as “the country’s farming powerhouse,” the midwest, on the transportation of goods. Throughout most of human history, the innovation of farming allowed our ancestors to become independent by allowing each community to grow its food. Locally sourced food production was accomplished through the growth of smaller family-owned homestead operations. As humanity aggressively urbanized in the 20th Century, most Americans living in cities eschewed this old way of life, paving the way for grocery stores, supermarkets and centralized farming. According to the Economic History Association’s summary of U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the mass output of these mega-farms offset the increase in price for shipping produce into the cities; however, the dramatic lowering of prices starved out the remaining smaller family-owned farms. Not to mention, The Guardian reports that the massive increase in shipping led to carbon dioxide emissions from shipping becoming 4.5% of total carbon output, which directly affects the current climate crisis.
CNBC reported that “Large farms with over $1 million in sales account for only 4% of all farms, but 66% of all sales.” To cut costs and make these large profits, many of these large mega-farms use unsustainable practices. One of the most controversial of these practices is the increase in pesticide use. The USGS reported that Americans use nearly 1 billion pounds of pesticides a year. Additionally, they’ve found that soil doesn’t act as a protective filter between pesticides and groundwater, which potentially puts the groundwater of millions of people at risk of contamination. Besides inordinate pesticide use, many of these mega-farms practice mono-cropping, where countless acres of land are devoted to the growth of a single crop, which can increase the threat of infestation, disease and drought.
To adapt to the environmental challenges of the 21st Century, America must refocus its model for agricultural production back to sustainable and self-sufficient small farms. Our need for willing farmers comes at a time when millennials are struggling for work. Forbes reported that in 2016, the unemployment rate of millennials stood at a staggering 12.8% compared to the 4.9% national average. Additionally, millennials value careers that offer the opportunity to make meaningful changes over jobs providing just another paycheck, and according to CNBC, they lag in homeownership compared to Gen X and Baby Boomers at the same age. Enticing millennials to go into farm ownership could provide the opportunity to perform meaningful work on their terms with land left over for a home while also promoting the deurbanization of the already overcrowded cities.
Most millennials picture farming as it was a century ago; however, recent innovation has changed what can constitute farming. Recent developments surrounding the new applications of cannabis and loosened regulations have created many new farms. Also, new research on sustainable ocean agriculture has opened farmland in places seemingly unimaginable before. According to The Wall Street Journal, even the solar industry has invested in small farming by incentivizing “solar farmers” who are trained in basic electrical engineering and manage localized solar production for communities. This isn’t your grandfather’s farming. The field of agricultural research is at the forefront of innovation providing millennials the opportunity to apply their highly specialized science, technology, engineering, and math educations for the greater good.
Booker T. Washington once said, “No race can prosper till it learns there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem,” and he couldn’t be more correct. Although the nature of farming has changed drastically over the past century, it’s still one of the most important pillars of our society and remains one of the best mediums for solving the problems of our time. If the government would properly subsidize and incentivize innovative and self-sufficient small farming, especially for younger citizens, then we could create a more sustainable world for everyone.
Charlie Jones is a freshman public policy & administration major. Contact Charlie at email@example.com.