As we rapidly approach the time of year We the People annually set aside to give extra special thanks, I’d like to give a shout-out to a group of folks that may not always be uppermost on our minds come Feast Day. It goes without saying that family and friends will be celebrated on Thanksgiving, as well as all the goodness with which we’ve been richly blessed in this nation. But the people I’d like to salute in particular this year are the ones who make it possible for us to dive into all the fixin’s next Thursday. And that would be the farmers who grow all that good stuff. There aren’t that many of them around anymore, but they’re producing more and better food than ever before.
From what I’ve read, humans lived in an agrarian-based society for around 10,000 years. It’s only been about a century and a half or so since most people lived and worked on farms. By the turn of the 20th century, something like 40% of Americans tilled the soil. Right around mid-century, the number of farms declined by about half. I saw a report that said the number of people on farms dropped from roughly 20 million in 1950 to less than 10 million in 1970.
I know that mass change happened within my own family tree. My maternal grandparents were both born and raised on Indiana farms. My grandfather traded a tractor for animals and became a veterinarian, taking my grandmother along for the ride. But not before my own mother was born in the family farmhouse. She never knew the rural life, but her older brother and sister did for a short while.
On a side note, my family’s farm did actually stay in business. When I was a teenager, my mom took one of my sisters and me to a family reunion. We got to see where she was born, and her cousin who owned the property invited us to spend a day helping him harvest popcorn. Yep. Popcorn. Those kernels that turn into the perfect movie snack actually grow like regular corn. We shucked our own that night and had a delicious, fresh, butter-laden feast.
I’m not quite sure if that cousin’s offspring are still planting and harvesting, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they long ago headed for a more urban existence. Because if you fast forward from when I visited to a couple of decades into the 21st century, only about 2.6 million jobs are actually on-the-farm itself.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 98% of today’s farms are family-owned. And they can be big businesses. The vast majority of operations with an annual gross cash farm income of at least a million dollars are family farms. Those fewer farms, though, are producing many more crops than their predecessors ever thought possible.
Farmers today have to know a whole lot more than just when to plant the seeds and when to harvest the bounty. Farm implements are not inexpensive and can be unbelievably technologically advanced. College degrees in Agriculture require classes in managing people, money, and machines, not to mention identifying, working with, and improving the soil.
So, are farmers responsible for the rapidly rising cost of food? Hardly. The USDA reported that in 2020, the farm share was 16 cents of the total food dollar. The marketing share was 84 cents. Lots of hands touch that produce from the time it leaves the field until it hits your table.
Farmers have to be environmentalists too, concerned with soil and water quality, wildlife habitats, and air quality, as well as land retirement, conservation practices, protection of wetlands and grasslands, and preservation of productive farmland at risk of residential or commercial development. Plus, follow a host of USDA acronym programs.
And then there’s climate change. An unexpected monsoon can do as much, if not more, damage to land as a total lack of rain can. Soil that gets washed away doesn’t come back quickly. (UN scientists say it can take nature 1,000 years to produce two or three centimeters of soil.) And then what’s not washed away is vulnerable. One soil scientist likened the depleted soil to the skin of the Earth with the sun beating down on it mercilessly.
Farmers have to know how to preserve that soil and use it to our best advantage. Which they do, year after year after year. They are a small but mighty group to whom we owe a great deal of thanks. Please remember them on Thursday. They deserve our appreciation.