My great-great-grandfather Frederik Nielsen came to the United States from Denmark in 1891.
He was following his brother who had gone out a little earlier, and together they hoped to make money in California. But the gold rush was over, and they ended up in Utah. They worked hard for others, and they eventually earned the money to bring over their families.
And from there, my great-great-grandfather kept working slowly acquiring land and livestock. He built his farm with his family acre by acre, cow by cow, and for a time turkeys were involved too.
Most multi-generation farming families have a story very similar. Some ancestor started it from nothing, and now it is strong.
Today, however, several of those long-ago formed farms are gone, and new farms aren’t replacing them.
“In 2012, the number of new farmers who have been on their current operation less than ten years was down 20 percent from 2007,” according to the census. “Nearly 172,000 were on their current operation less than five years; this group was down 23 percent from 2007.”
My Grandpa Nielsen says there are four ways to acquire a farm today:
“First thing is you inherit it. Or you can marry it. Or else you’ve got to make a lot of money somewhere else first. The other way is, once in a while, a man will work for a farm, and he and the owner will really get along, and he’ll start to buy in on it. [And the owner] will help him, especially if [the owner] doesn’t have kid who wants it.”
I have seen each of those happen for different farmers, but I’ve also seen loss when a someone expected one of those options to work out and it didn’t.
For instance, I have a friend whose father and uncle worked on their family farm for decades. It was their career. Their father, my friend’s grandfather, still owned it but was retired. Then one day the father decided to sell the whole farm. The property after all recently escalated in value.
The sons couldn’t afford to buy it on the spot, and they wouldn’t see any money from the sale until their father passed away. And so they lost their livelihood.
This story is hardly unique.
If it is so hard to acquire a farm and so easily lost, the new question is whether we’ll have enough farms to supply life-sustaining food.
The American Farm Bureau says one U.S. farm feeds 168 people annually here and abroad; and with the population expected to increase, by 2050 “the world’s farmers will have to grow about 60 percent more food than what is now produced.”
One striking problem is the cost and profit of farming. While each farm and ranch is different, their owners would never say it’s a cheap business to be in.
More stats from the American Farm Bureau say that farmers are more efficient than ever, producing 262 percent more food than in 1950 and with a slightly lower input cost percentage. And yet, they lost on their percentage of the dollar consumers pay.
“[They] receive only 16 cents out of every dollar spent on food at home and away from home,” according to the Bureau. “The rest goes for costs beyond the farm gate: wages and materials for production, processing, marketing, transportation and distribution. In 1980, farmers and ranchers received 31 cents.”
Yes, farms can be profitable. Hence why there are still farmers. But it’s increasingly hard; and so little by little, farm by farm, the number of U.S. food producers dwindles.