Just 2% of our population are farmers. Perhaps this should cause us as much concern as the 99-1% divide (highlighting economic inequality in our country), but today my goal is not warning, but thanksgiving. Here are some observations that we, the 98% should consider about the 2% of farmers, ranchers, growers, producers or whatever they would like us to call them.
- The 2% produce the food that sustain the other 98% of us. Historically, this is remarkable. We do not have to produce our own food, much less have any knowledge about food production. This, the result of millennia of specialization since we first left our hunter/gatherer life, means that we rely on the 2% for our very lives; they are more important than the 1%, the super-wealthy of “We are the 99%” lament. Because of what the 2% does, we can take for granted that there will be abundant, affordable food, and get away with it.
The 2% are the real occupiers; they occupy, manage, and get their living from the land. Over half of the land in the nation is directly affected by their decisions, a lot more indirectly. Daily, they deal with plants and animals, and their pests and diseases, often on a scale that gardeners and pet owners cannot imagine. They deal with land prices, land speculators, absentee landowners, and zoning. Even today, with enclosed cab tractors, their work is outside. While they may stare at screens for a while, they must at times go out-of-doors, where they get muddy, dusty, cold or hot. They sweat and get dirty not for the adrenalin rush of summiting the next peak, negotiating a difficult pitch, or surviving class 5 rapids; they do it because farming requires someone on the land.
- The 2% mostly live in the rural areas, “flyover country”, supporting small towns (villages, really) with populations less than a couple thousand. This allows most of us to live in towns or cities, pursuing lives that have nothing to do with food production. Here the relevant split is about 70%-30%; Over 70% of us live in cities (>50,000), another 10% in towns (>2,500) leaving about 20% in small towns or rural areas. The differences between the 70% in cities and the 2% may be nearly as big as that between the 1% super-rich and the 99%. In the late 1910s the urban population surpassed that of the rural in the US, so we have had a long time of separation.
- The 2% save wild lands through high-yield, intensive crop production. In 2010, corn production in the United States was 17 times that of 1866, yet there was more land planted to corn in 1925 than in 2010. Total cropland decreased between 1978 and 2002 to its lowest level since 1945. This feat of increasing yields without increasing cropland, has saved more land from the plow than is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Park Service, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management combined.
- The 2% know that producing food is hard work. Much of the 98% has been disconnected from farming for generations, and in this time, an idealized vision of farming has crept in. It does not take long; when in the office or meetings for too long a stretch, I can forget that farming is hard, decisions always involve tradeoffs, and little is certain. Too many of us 98%, carried along by agrarian dreams, or pastoral longings; a peaceful country vision, or the pop-rural of pop-country music, have an impatience with biological constraints. This impatience together with a belief that modern technology has liberated humanity from those constraints leads us to make unrealistic demands on the 2%. They, however, cannot afford such illusions; they have to deal with reality every day. As 2%-er and writer Chris Smaje says about those who think they have farming all figured out, “such people either have big egos, little experience, or a lot of luck.”
The 2% are the professionals, we are the amateurs. Although the 2% get input from many of us 98%: bankers, landowners, regulators, researchers, extension personnel, activists, neighbors and foodies, when it comes to actually producing food, they do it. They aren’t thinking about producing food, or writing about producing food, or studying how to produce food, or producing food in a garden (a good thing, but not farming) or even cooking food. It is not a pastime. They produce food for a living and to survive they must make a profit.
- The 2% face the risks of producing food. Although many of them are conservative politically, all of them are risk takers – they have to be. Raising food, even in modern agriculture, is a risky proposition. Every spring, farmers, as the original entrepreneurs, begin thousands of “start-up” businesses, each field at risk of failure. It is often physically dangerous. It is rarely economically safe. And it is always subject to forces out of their control including weather, markets, politics and pestilence.
So we should be thankful. Because of the 2%, we can be picky about how our food is raised; we have tremendous food choice; most of us do not have to worry about where our food will come from; and we do not have to farm every available acre to produce enough food. In contrast to the 99-1% divide, here, we the 98%, must remember that we are the privileged.
Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2002/EIB-14
Economic Research Service/USDA