Challenges and Hope for Farmers and Farming in America

Early in the 20th century, farming in America consisted mainly of smaller farms in rural areas that produced a range of crops and employed about 40 percent of the U.S. workforce.

By 1930, agricultural GDP was over 7 percent of total GDP of the nation, thus reflecting a major sector of the economy.

Major changes were underway, though, with the number of farms falling by over 60 percent across the century, while farm sizes increased by over 60 percent.

Specialization became the key word in this century with one commodity per farm becoming the standard. Another major trend was a significant decline in farm population (to less than 1 percent), along with number of people living in rural areas (to 20 percent).

Farm production has been increasingly driven by technology, such as tractors, synthetic fertilizers, and better seeds. Yields of central crops—cotton, wheat, corn—soured after World War II.

With increased production, prices for these commodities decreased, with three to six times higher prices before the 1950s.

Yet, income changes during the century were surprising. Farm households did earn less than other U.S. households before the 1970s, but since the 1990s farm households have earned more than other households, especially the larger ones.

21st Century Agriculture

During the 21st century, farming in America has focused on a large, specialized farming, and agriculture employs less than 2 percent of the labor force.

Although the agricultural sector is still vital to the nation’s economy, agricultural GDP represents less than one percent of the total of national GDP. A trend that stands out for this century is that over 7 percent of the larger farms account for 80 percent of the value of agricultural output.

Concentration then is a key word for the 21st Century, with fewer but larger farms than in the past. These farms tend to have higher incomes and higher net worth than average US households.

Challenges for Smaller Farms and Farm Workers

Smaller farms face unprecedented challenges.

In 2019, small farm owners and workers confronted climate change, a trade war, and falling commodity prices. Some of the results: Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies increased 12 percent in the Midwest and 50 percent in the Northwest (from July 2018 to June 2019).

Likewise, farm debt continues to rise while more than half of all farmers continue to lose money (each year since 2013). Globalization and technology are trends that factor heavily into these challenges for farming in America.

The statement by secretary of agriculture Earl Butz from the 1970s seems to hold true, “Get big or get out.”

Government Programs and the USDA Loan

This is where the federal government can help.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers a range of loans to help smaller to mid-size farmers.

For example, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) offers a Beginning Farmer program with direct, guaranteed loans; it also provides Farm Ownership loans aimed at providing access to land and capital investment.

Perhaps most valuable to the smaller farmer is the USDA Loan through the Microloan programs to support farming in America during the early start-up period.

The FSA stresses how it focuses on providing resources for beginning farmers and ranchers. Since 2013, the USDA has provided over eight thousand microloans.

USDA has also made changes to such programs as the Farm Storage Facility Loan, targeting small and mid-sized fruit and vegetable producers.

The department has further reinvested in its Farm to School Program, providing grants to support schools to make local food purchases.

Farm Workers Rights Movement

Farm workers have also continued to press their own cause. Farmers draw on Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Gilbert Padilla’s United Farm Workers (UFW) to campaign for better working conditions and worker rights.

Since the 1960s, the UFW has secured many union contracts to protect farm workers and today is at the center of advocating for a range of issues.

For example, the UFW has petitioned for the Fairness for Farm Workers Act, with overtime work protections for farmers; the organization is also advocating for the Farm Workforce Modernization Act to provide a pathway to immigration status for undocumented agricultural workers.

Further, the UFW is at the forefront of helping farmers in America struggling with extreme heat conditions and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The USDA Loan and UFW efforts thus provide hope for farmers and farming in America today.