Did you know the U.S. Census no longer counts enough farmers in America to justify inclusion in the census data as an occupation? In other words, according to the United States number crunchers, America no longer has any farmers.
Where is our food coming from if we have no farmers? From the grocery store (a conviction shared by a large percentage of our nation’s citizens, young and old)? From automated food factories in New Jersey? Imported from China? Don’t laugh. Precious few can answer the question accurately. Even if you have a cursory understanding of where your food is coming from, how many of the details can you really describe with confidence?
Another question: where did all the farmers go? After all, in 1900 forty-one percent of Americans lived on farms and worked in agriculture. Now, apparently, none do.
Okay, okay, of course these are trick facts. Everyone knows, and our collective John Mellencampian sense tells us, there are countless bucolic family farms laid out in a beautiful patchwork of corn and wheat and soy across the land from New York to California. Just get into an airplane and look out the window. Put your mind at ease, we indeed have farms out here in the hinterland between our concentrated hives of pink houses and skyscrapers. The federal machine is simply up to its old pastime of dreaming up obfuscation with numbers.
The thing is, from out here in the patchwork, we know the government isn’t kidding this time. The occupation of farming—specifically, family farming—is rapidly evaporating and has been for decades. Where you see a comforting, interlocking picture of amber waves of grain, we see a puzzle, ghosts, seeping chemistry, confusion, obedience to the new boss, and always less. We’re frightened, and we wonder what you (urban citizens) are thinking of all this stuff. Does it even blink on your radar?
I’ve had this conversation with a respected acquaintance—a wonderful man enmeshed in the world of big-time financial work in a large metro area—and he’s convinced there is no problem. One needs only stroll through the nearest supermarket to witness our awesome abundance of beautiful, affordable food. Besides, according to his way of thinking, if there were a problem, America’s bootstrap spirit driven by profit motivation would solve it. Always has. Always will.
Maybe this is all simply a matter of efficiency—of course we have fewer farmers because we have such advanced technology and monstrous machinery that we don’t need many “farmers” to plant, fertilize, spray and harvest the farm commodities. Just a lot of petroleum, both to make the chemistry and to apply it over vast stretches of tilled (and untilled) former prairie. Why worry about the dwindling numbers of farmers? Perfectly expendable. I mean, how hard can it be to learn to fill reservoir tanks with petro-fertilizers, organophosphate poisons and hook up the combine?
Exactly. How difficult is that? Any honest worker punching a time clock can be taught, can’t they? All one needs to do is follow the plan. We’ve bypassed the age of critical thinking in agriculture, of ownership and stewardship and responsibility. What are we looking for anyway? Agrarian wisdom? Knowledge gained through the ages? What good is that old thinking? Let’s get with the program, people.
But who is laying out the plan, and whose interests are at the front of the line? Is precaution part of the plan? The future? Come to think of it, what is the plan, exactly?
I’ll leave those questions to you—like I said, I’m puzzled myself. My imagination is drawn to the family farmer. Living out here in the patchwork, my life is frequently touched by farmers—folks with magical, playful minds and a true love for the daily sunrise.
The bounty of things they know surrounding our humbling place in the circle of life—that’s what gets me. Everything from how living soil should taste (yes, “taste”), to whether patience will heal better than action. How to grow today’s food without eliminating the soil needed for tomorrow’s food. So much primal knowledge running like a thread from olden days, through my curious fingers, into the countless quilts of experience our grandchildren may one day sew together.
It’s really something to cherish. The successful production of food has for eons relied on a foundation of family and community and trust. When we remove any one of those from our agriculture, we weaken the footings our healthy society rests upon. For folks living proudly in an information age, this seems to me a core chunk of data we’re tossing out willy-nilly.
I mean, if someone came to me tomorrow and said, “Andy, the world has accidentally exhausted its supply of farmers, so we need you to go out there and produce us some food,” I’d be dumbstruck (and terrified at the prospect). What do I know about growing food?
Most of us eaters may not know much about farming, but we do know about taste. I personally find food from family farmers to be so, so delicious. When farmers care for their soil and let their animals exhibit natural behaviors like grazing on organic pastures, the food just rocks. Even more for me, when a cooperative of family farmers like Organic Valley sets out to follow a plan together—a plan that’s in harmony with nature, precautionary and creative—I taste that, too, in the food they make. I like to think it’s a taste our ancestors knew well, and a taste they would ask us to savor.
Even though the Census doesn’t say so, farmers able to produce taste like that should always count for something.
Andy Radtke lives with his exquisite, gardening girlfriend (aka: wife), two large dogs, one peacock and fifteen chickens, perched atop the rolling eastern fringe of Wisconsin's Driftless Region in the farm house built by his dairying great grandparents. After stints of varying lengths as artist, screen printer, lithographer and editor of small-town newspapers, he came to Organic Valley to join the good fight for better food and a future for family farms.