The number of farmers and people employed in farming has been on the decline for a century and it continues.
Mechanization was one key factor. Work once done by man and beast to plant and harvest can be done in far less time with much greater ease thanks to the tractor. As the machinery became larger and more efficient, the need for labor declined.
At the same time, acreage yields have grown thanks to scientific research and improved farm practices.
While our grandparents and their parents might have grown and raised much of their own food on a mini-farm, today less than 2 percent of the world’s population provides for the entire world. Soon, that figure is expected to be 1 percent.
At the same time, the remaining 99 percent are asking more questions. They want to know where and how their food was raised, what chemicals were involved and want absolute assurances of freshness.
Recently, topics of concern to the agriculture community were outlined in the film documentary “Farmers For America” shown at the Historic State Theater in Elizabethtown. After the viewing, local producers took to the stage to describe the challenges and threats to the farm economy in a panel discussion presented by the Central Kentucky Community Foundation and Hardin County Farm Bureau.
A key factor mentioned was age. The average farmer is 60.
Anyone who expects to still be eating in another 20 years should be concerned about that statistic. More young farmers are needed to tend the ground when these producers retire.
Young people interested in farming have a huge barrier to entry. It’s difficult to start small and grow with the business. Economies of scale are necessary for success. Equipment costs and high risks related to weather are key concerns, but the greatest barrier is availability of land.
Much of the rich farmland of yesterday has been sold for development. Neighborhoods, businesses, industries and roads have extended their way into the countryside.
There is no new land being made. Each acre removed from production is gone forever.
The local forum identified problems. Let’s consider one possible solution. Perhaps it’s time to think about public policy regarding an agriculture conservancy.
Just as parks protect greenspaces, nature preserves guard land for wildlife habitats and property has been set aside for conservationists, perhaps it’s time to establish farm conservancies.
Provide incentives for career farmers interested in placing their land in an agriculture trust upon retirement or as part of estate planning. Then coordinate the management and operation to provide young farmers with the access to land necessary to become the next generation of producers.
This steps outside the typical free enterprise model and might sound way too radical to some. But the alternative may be bleak if no new farmers are available to tend the soil.
(THE NEWS ENTERPRISE editorial from the Kentucky Press News Service.)