Saturday, January 7, 2012

Economy and Agriculture: The Past

It seems like every day I hear yet another story about the recession, the unemployment rate, or the number of jobs created or lost. Understandably, I suppose... given the tenacity of our country's economic lows, and the failure of the "good times" to show so much as the tip of its nose, it is not surprising that the story of America's economy is on the front page more often than not.

Dean (of Dean and Susan Vidal, owners of Brightwood Vineyard and Farm, where I spent much of 2011) was fond of talking about how sustainable agriculture - specifically, small family farms with a local focus - could be instrumental in turning our economy around.

History agrees with him. One theory I've heard (although one I can't cite because I don't remember where I read it... sorry, I know you're probably really upset about that) is that one reason the Great Depression hit so hard was that, up until that point, the majority of American citizens lived on farms. Their needs as consumers were fairly low because they grew and made most of what they needed, so recessions never seemed to have as much of an impact or last for too long.*

Interesting. Let's examine this idea further.

By the 1930s, there had been a significant exodus from the countryside to the cities, thanks to the Industrial Revolution. In 1790, farmers were 90% of the labor force. By 1860, it was 58%; by 1900, 38%; and by 1930, the beginning of the Great Depression, farmers were 21% of the labor force. According to the USDA, the number of people living on farms declined from around 40% in 1900 to around 27% in 1930. While the Great Depression would have been devastating regardless, it's likely that having the lowest percentage of people to date living on farms worsened the situation. (And the Dust Bowl probably didn't help.)

So back to the present.

Today, less than 1% of Americans say they are farmers, and only 2% live on farms. The number of farms has decreased from 6000 in 1900 to around 2000 today, with the average farm nearly doubled in size. But perhaps most telling: the average number of commodities per farm has decreased from more than five in 1900 to less than two. And as Michael Pollan famously investigated in The Omnivore's Dilemma, many of these farms are only surviving thanks to government subsidies for crops of soybeans and corn.

Although most people probably don't think the state of agriculture in our country has much, if anything, to do with the ongoing recession, I think the opposite. If more people grew their own food instead of shelling out their increasingly scarce dollars to purchase it, would this recession have been so bad, or lasted so long? History says no.

Frankly, I think updating our food system to one that focuses on diverse production, a local focus, and an interest in the environmental conservation of their land and soil health can have enormous economic benefits.

And if you come back soon, I'll talk about how that works in Part II.

*Incidentally, who knew there were so many recessions in American history?

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