Why the West Forgot the Farm, and How We’re Rediscovering Them

Two tractors plant in field. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

Two tractors plant in field. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

About 1% of the U.S. population are full-time farmers on 2.2 million farms. In the EU about 2.5% of the population works about 12 million farms. Compare that to China where about half of the population works on an estimated 600 million farms. That seems like an impossible number, but in reality they are consolidating quickly. More than 78% of China comprised farm workers in 1978, and government policies on land rights and technification will accelerate that trend.
China is in the process of moving its labor force into cities for production in other industries, a transition the West undertook about a century ago. In 1900 about 38% of the labor force in the U.S. worked on farms. By 1920, 27% of America worked 6.4 million farms, and then the Great Depression hit.

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The world’s financial woes drove workers from the farms to urban centers for work, a movement that continued to the end of the 20th century. City dwellers enjoyed higher incomes brought by the post-war boom.

Newfound economic stability meant that people could buy higher-quality foods, riches that seemed unattainable amid the dark days of the Depression and World War. In the 1930s, one of the most consumed vegetables in the U.S. was dandelions. Nutritious and abundant, they sustained countless households during a time when 25% unemployment forced much of country to forage for their food.

Post-war prosperity and suburban sprawl replaced farm markets with grocery stores, and we willingly shunned our connection to the fields. Our dinners stopped being a reflection of the fields in lieu of recipes from books that used exotic ingredients as people sought a life that resembled “The Great Gatsby” more than “The Good Earth.” So total was the disdain for symbols of hard times that today it is difficult to find so much as dandelion wine or dandelion greens at even the most trendy locavore restaurants.

This culinary renaissance displaced our collective understanding of farming systems. Technology began to shape every industry, including agriculture, but we lost our palate for agrarian understanding. The Green Revolution ushered an era of increased productivity, crop diversity, and inexpensive foods. No one questioned how, until Silent Spring. By then, ag technology was moving so fast that the 99% of people removed from farm life were completely confused about what they were eating and how it was produced. That ignorance continues today and manifests as the raging debate we have
about food.

This month’s cover story discusses how sentiments are changing about food systems. There will always be zealots and conspiracy theorists who refuse to acknowledge the great work that agribusiness are doing, often without alternative ideas. But the tide is changing as people rediscover their connection to food and food’s connection to humanity. Those stories are the only hope we have in moving the needle of public perception on modern agriculture and help the world understand how productivity enables us to live the modern lifestyles we enjoy today. Science, so far, hasn’t been enough.

We are chronicling people’s discovery in the pages of this issue and on our website as part of our Humans For Ag project. There you will find personal stories about reconnecting to agriculture. Listen to interviews and podcasts, watch TED Talks, and read testimonials from people who care equally about how they feed their families and the world.

We are amid a new age of reasoning that will shape how the public thinks about food.