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As agri land use declines there's more food?

I'm tired of watching this carnage.

As Rural America Declines, There Are Still Plenty of Farmers

Total U.S. agricultural output increased even as acreage declined 20% between 1950 and 2017.

By Blake Hurst, WSJ

March 10, 2024 3:59 pm ET

A tractor and two wagons wait to unload a combine hopper as farmers begin soybean harvest in Sioux County, Iowa, Oct. 8, 2019. PHOTO: JERRY MENNENGA/ZUMA PRESS

Tarkio, Mo.

My father, 89, is renting out some of his farm ground this spring to my brother, me and three of our nephews. He’s quick to point out that he’s easing into retirement, keeping a hand in the business by farming a few hundred acres of corn and soybeans. This spring will mark the 75th corn crop he has planted. During harvest this fall he will, God willing, match my grandfather’s accomplishment of running large farm equipment into his 90s.

So it didn’t surprise me when the latest census of agriculture, conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture every five years, reported in February that the average age of farmers was 58.1 in 2022, up from 57.5 in 2017. At 66, I’m contributing to the trend.

Articles in the farm press frequently express concern about who will do the farming when the gerontocracy supplying food to the rest of the country totters off the scene. Folks should relax. We’re not in any danger of running out of farmers. When we oldsters grudgingly trade our John Deeres for mobility scooters, somebody will be around to farm the land. As the agricultural census makes clear, farms are growing larger. Many farmers pass their land and businesses down to family members as my father plans to do, but even when farmers sell the land to nonfarm investors, local farmers will rent those acres and add them to their spreads.

In the future, we also may not need as many laborers as we once did. Farmers may eventually become superfluous as autonomous farm equipment becomes widespread. With driverless tractors and combines, it’s possible for one 88-year-old farmer on a cellphone to manage a vast farm operation from the seat of his pickup truck.

The census further reports a reduction in total farm acreage. In the five years since the last report, the U.S. has lost about 20 million acres of farmland. Lost farmland largely turns into developments, according to the American Farmland Trust, a partner of the USDA. Homes, stores, wind turbines and solar panels now stand on land that until recently was farmed. Are we paving over our future, risking food shortages and price increases because we don’t value farming over other economic activities?

Again, fears are overblown. While a loss of 20 million acres might sound substantial, the U.S. still has about 880 million acres of farmland. The loss of agricultural land also doesn’t mean that agricultural production is shrinking. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, world agricultural output has increased 1.94% a year over the past decade. In the U.S., total agricultural output increased on average 1.53% a year from 1948 to 2017 despite a more than 20% decrease in U.S. farmland acreage from 1950 to 2017. Innovations have enabled farmers to produce more food on less land.

According to the online scientific publication Our World in Data, not only did food supply per person increase in every region of the world between 1961 and 2021, but the “land area to grow a given quantity of crops” fell by “more than three-fold.” This increase in agricultural productivity should ease concern about the rate of farmland loss.

A cautionary note, however: Worldwide agricultural productivity grew much faster between 2001 and 2010 than it did in the most recent decade for which statistics are available.

Increased farm productivity isn’t a given; it’s only possible when regulators and lawmakers allow agricultural research to advance and consumers are accepting of new biotechnology.

Though some worries about agricultural census data are inflated, others are justified. It’s appropriate to be concerned about the declining number of farms. From 2017 to 2022, the U.S. lost more than 141,000 farms. We should be concerned not because there is an ideal number of farms for a well-functioning society, but because a decline in total farms mirrors the continuing population decline in rural counties across the U.S.

Infrastructure in rural America is rapidly declining as small towns hollow out. The decreasing number of farms has ripple effects on other rural businesses and institutions that supply farming families with seed, fuel, machinery, healthcare and education. The best and brightest young people are leaving for opportunities in the big city. My dad has seen the population of our small farming town fall by about 40% in his lifetime, and his great-grandchildren can field an eight-man football team only by combining with a neighboring school. The agricultural productivity growth that has been a boon for society has been the death knell for our community.

Yet we farm on. When the planters roll in mid-April, my dad will slowly climb down the steps of his tractor and check seed placements with a rusty pocketknife, just as he did in 1949. He’ll be optimistic that the rains will come and the markets will turn around in time for harvest. Meantime I’ll be training at least one of my grandsons, who has expressed an interest in continuing our family business. Our farm will be here for the next agricultural census in five years, and, I hope, for generations to come.

Mr. Hurst is a corn, soybean and greenhouse farmer.

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