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The West 2000 Page 5

Git Home! | The West 2000 Page 1

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Of the more than 268 million Americans alive today, it is no surprise that fewer than four million, or 1.6 percent, live on rural farms. Not all of them are farmers. Nevertheless, federal census figures indicate that nearly 25 percent of the population lives in rural areas with fewer than 2,500 residents.

Compare that to 1940, when the U.S. had less than half its present population, but 43 percent of Americans were considered to live in rural areas and nearly 23 percent of them on rural farms.

That fewer actual farmers must be producing more to feed a growing nation is one conclusion to be drawn. Another is that steadily more non-farmers dominate rural social and economic foundations. “Rural,” in fact, is not officially rural at all any more, but referred in government terms as “nonmetro,” meaning that the region is unattached to a city of 50,000 or more.

It is in that vague idea of our rural regions that population is reported to have grown between 1990 and 1996 at a pace double that of the entire 1980s. In part, this is due to increasing life expectancy among the “baby boom” generation born during and after World War II and leading now to more older citizens “retiring” to the countryside. This has resulted in an increase in the number of elderly in “nonmetro” or rural areas.

A conclusion from such statistics is that the
American agriculturalist, or family reliant on farming, ranching, logging or mining, is part of an aging and dwindling class of society that retains land in amounts disproportionate to their population. They are being overtaken, in some views, by the “sprawl” of expanding urban wealth.

Even more evident, however, is the steadily rising cost of real estate in favored coastal areas especially, causing expansion into more affordable regions that were once rural. Two-acre “farms” and “view” ranches are replacing marginally productive agricultural operations.

Astonishingly, one researcher at the University of California at Davis, Steven C. Blank, produced a paper in 1999 suggesting that, “The U.S. economy no longer needs agriculture and is rapidly outgrowing it.” (Blank, The Futurist, “The End of the American Farm?” April, 1999.)

In general, more Americans with more options provided by technology and transportation are choosing to make their homes in rural regions, and in most cases without intending to do so, are altering the economic and social description of rural America. Not that they aren’t welcome, but because so many misunderstand, vital elements of our future are being put at risk by casting aside what has been learned from the past.

Not as pithy and memorable as “Go West, young man,” but more accurate of Greeley’s “Advice to Aspiring Young Men,” it was a suggestion followed by many who sought their fortunes in the West, as well as by others who remained “on the farm.” But a century-and-a-half makes a big difference, both in farms and fortunes. On the web site of the American Farmland Trust in 1999, there was a constantly changing figure on the amount of farmland in America being lost. It rolled on steadily at a rate of nearly an acre a minute, but it turned out it was going too slow. A report in December 1999 by the Department of Agriculture concluded that farmland was being lost to development at an ever faster rate in the 1990s–more than 16 million acres between 1992 and 1997, 3.2 million acres a year. Most of those losses were of the most productive prime farmland near urban centers. The losses continue at a rate of over 50 acres an hour.


some form of non-farm income to support the family.
Production of farms, however, has increased at a rate of 2 percent a year since 1948, according to federal statistics, due to the use of fertilizers and improved technologies.

Such production statistics may be misleading. U.S. agricultural output did show remarkable gains after World War II, reaching a growth in essential grain production alone in the 1970s of 2.3 percent, but the rate of growth since then has been declining to only 0.5 percent in the 1990s, leading some analysts to conclude that U.S. agricultural production is near its limit from existing farm lands.

Given anticipated global population and income growth, food demand is expected to increase by at least 64 percent over the next 25 years. In its most dire prediction, the American Farmland Trust forecasts that if the rate of farmland being lost continues, the United States would be forced to go from a food exporting nation to a food importing nation by the middle of this century.
As an occupation in America, farming has been declining since the beginning of the 20th century. But if the American farmer is ever more rare, he or she is still ever more studied.

The federal government defines a farm as any establishment from which $1,000 or more in agricultural products would normally be sold in a year. Latest government reports indicate there are slightly fewer than two million farms in the U.S., covering about 968 million acres, a decline of about 7 percent in numbers of farms since 1987 and about 3.1 percent in land use. The average size of a farm increased over that period from 451 acres in 1987 to 471 acres in 1997.

Even so, the vast majority of farms in the United States, 86 percent, remain “family” farms. Three-quarters of those farms are regarded by government statistics as “non -commercial” or “hobby” farms with gross sales under $50,000 a year, requiring


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