David Vincent, Director of Public Relations, Rooster
Every year, there are fewer farmers. The downward spiral in the number of American farmers has continued unabated for the past 100 years, and the trend continues today. Where is this going? What’s driving it? And is it a good or bad thing?
Farmers are rapidly becoming an endangered species. Less than 2% of the U.S. population now produces food for the other 98% – with enough surplus to feed millions of additional people throughout the world. In this country, most urban and suburban people go through life and never meet a farmer, much less get to know one on a meaningful level.
Is technology to blame for the ever-shrinking number of farmers? Does the highly complex farm labor situation play a role as well? It’s a classic case of one begetting the other. The technological advances arise out of the need for farmers to accomplish two things: compensate for a continually shrinking labor pool of farm workers; and find more efficient ways to manage larger operations, cover more acres, and do so while maintaining consistently profitable yields.
Economy of scale. This is quite the balancing act for farmers. Most people don’t connect the dots that farming, like so many other modern-day businesses, is subject to the dynamics of economy of scale. It doesn’t matter whether one is manufacturing cars or producing crops in today’s economic environment. Bigger is better and more profitable. Spread out your costs and compensate for narrow profit margins by producing more.
When I first began covering agriculture as a journalist in the late 1970s, a father and son farming team could make a decent living off a couple of thousand acres of corn and soybeans. Today, it takes 5,000 or 10,000 acres to make the same income. To achieve the benefits of economy of scale in farming, you must lean on advanced technology and equipment specifically designed for the tasks at hand.
Technology drives survival. Technological advances allow farmers to work larger acreages, achieve higher yields and, in many cases, further reduce the need for farm labor that is hard to come by. Rapid advancements in equipment, seed genetics, crop protection products and other inputs enabled American farmers to nearly triple total farm output between 1948 and 2019, even as acreages and the number of farmers and farm workers declined.
According to the USDA, there were 8 million farmers in 1950, plus another 2.3 million hired farmworkers. By 2000, these numbers had fallen to 2 million and 1.1 million, respectively. The U.S. lost more than 100,000 farms between 2011 and 2018. Suburban sprawl, new zoning laws, and stricter environmental regulations squeezed the availability of farmland, driving land prices higher. The number of farm bankruptcies increased 12 percent in 2018 alone. The smaller farm operations without the cash reserves to weather these storms were the first to go.
And then the pandemic hit. In the last six months of 2021, more than 20 million Americans quit their jobs in what economists are calling “The Great Resignation.” A chronic labor shortage continues to afflict the U.S. economy, and farms are even more susceptible than other businesses to losing valuable labor. This is especially true when it comes to the younger workers who handle much of the more onerous chores, such as caring for livestock, working in the fields, and operating machinery.
Another hard truth is that most young people have no interest whatsoever in the type of hard, hot, and dirty work that farming requires. Why bother with the constant toil of farm work when you can make $15 or $20 per hour at your local McDonald’s – or even more at Amazon or UPS?
Draining the farm labor pool. According to the USDA, the average age of principal farm operators is 59. As these farmers face retirement, there are fewer young farmers able or willing to take their place. And where some operators could once rely on immigrants and migrant farm labor to help fill the gap, new and more restrictive regulations now make it more difficult for farmers to tap into this traditional labor source. In a cruel twist of fate for farmers, we now have record numbers of immigrants pouring across our southern border but fewer of them than ever before will be hired for farm work.
This drain is hitting farmers hard. A study last year by Purdue University found that two thirds of farmers had “some or a lot of difficulty” finding workers in 2021. That’s twice as many who had problems the year before. Farmers are, however, fighting fire with fire on the wage front, offering employee benefit packages with retirement plans, medical benefits, subsidized housing, profit-sharing plans, and more.
The bottom line, however, is that technology is by far the best defense against farm labor challenges, not the cause of the problem. Most U.S. farms already incorporate at least some forms of advanced agricultural technology, including advanced automation with wireless sensors, data analytics, and predictive forecasting models. The number-one reason for this adoption rate cited by the farmers surveyed was to combat farm labor shortages.
Technology and the dismal farm labor situation are a two-edged sword that continues to whittle away at the number of remaining U.S. farmers. Thanks to the technological advances, farmers can compensate for the lack of available labor and continue to do what they do better than other farmers anywhere else in the world.