The statistic is quite striking. In 1820 it is estimated that 72% of Americans worked on farms. In 1920, the number was 30%. Today, less than 1%. This concept continues to come up repeatedly. For 200 years, people have been leaving farms for the city. The underlying question is, “Why?”
At the Plymouth Historical Society, there are stacks of old books that give a glimpse into the past of Plymouth and the United States. One stack included different copies from different years of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) yearbook. The following quote comes from the USDA’s Yearbook of Agriculture, 1931:
Our farm population has been a declining proportion of our total population for many decades. This is partly a result of increasing farm efficiency, which enables fewer men to produce a given quantity of food and fiber. Some migration to the cities is therefore inevitable and desirable. It lessens agricultural competition, while broadening the urban market. In recent years, however, the cityward movement has been excessive, as is evident from the magnitude of the return movement.
The key word that jumps out, “excessive.” People were leaving farms for more reasons than just more efficiency. Many were forced to abandon the farm because of a severe economic depression in agriculture in the 1920s. With World War I over in Europe and the dramatic increase in the use of the tractor, farms were ripe for overproduction and a dramatic decrease in prices forcing many farmers to leave the rural life for a job in the city. In short, the farming venture was no longer profitable enough for farmers to provide for their families.
Now 100 years later, the farming population continues to grow older and older and the younger generation is unwilling to step in and fill the role. A huge reason is that they see how difficult it was for their parents to get by and don’t want to work so hard for minimal gain. Why pick up a failing business when more lucrative options are elsewhere? Many would rather sell for developments or to larger farms than take on the difficult task of continuing the farm.
This begs the ultimate question. What can be done to encourage young people from all backgrounds to get involved in agriculture? And if they are unwilling, who will fill the void? Is it a good idea to take the farmer out of the farm and move to even more mechanization? These are hard questions, especially considering a country’s agriculture is at the very base of its ability to thrive as a society. The future of the United States and the world, in fact, depends on mankind’s ability to produce food. The stakes are high, because no matter what, everyone needs food.