A few years back Stuart Staniford, (who is one of the most brilliant people I know) and I had a lively debate about the future of small scale agriculture over at The Oil Drum. Stuart argued that agriculture would continue to get bigger and more industrialized, because its fossil fuel dependency really wasn’t that great. I argued that in fact energy and environmental pressures would push us back to smaller scale agriculture. So it is nice of Staniford to note that at least at this particular moment, there’s a small general trend in my direction ;-) :

I’ve circled the 4% increase between 2002 and 2007. Note that the reporter is incorrect that this is the first such increase since 1920: there was a large increase in 1935, presumably due to the effects of people going back to the land in the great depression. Note also that the 2007 census is just before the great recession and it’s possible the 2012 census will show a larger increase given both the recession and, perhaps, an ongoing trend amongst young people of returning to agriculture.

So, we are a long way from Sharon Astyk’s Nation of Farmers, but it certainly looks like the giant loss of US farm count in the mid twentieth century has stabilized and perhaps now begun some kind of bounce back**.

I would actually suggest that at this point, this is a voluntary back to the land movement – that is, we are not yet seriously experiencing the kinds of pressures that may drive us in the future. So in some respects, I don’t think the issue that Staniford and I debated back then is really in play yet – instead, the growing local food movement is creating a trend that is taking us in a useful direction – towards more farms – but not necessarily because we HAVE to have more farms, but because we WANT them. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a good thing, but I’m not sure that I would draw any conclusions from this particular trend – except that doing this keeps land in agricultural usage and begins to create the next generation of farmers – which we need for purely demographic as well as energy and resource reasons (I’m not entirely clear that the demographic pressures are yet in force here either, really – we just haven’t fully grasped how badly we need these young farmers EVEN IF we engage in exactly the same kind of industrialized agriculture – the average US farmer is nearly 60, and his or her children have already left the farm with no intention of coming back).

Let us say that we will need only 2% of the US population to become farmers. But since the vast majority of farmers are facing retirement within the next two decades, and under 35 farmers are such a tiny percentage, that means we will need to train 30-50 times as many young farmers in the next two decades as we have been doing. The numbers could be substantially higher. But where would even those small numbers of farmers come from? Even if the younger farmers were to have a lot of kids and encourage them to stay on the farm, that doesn’t resolve the problem.

So where do they come from? This is a new problem for human society – while we’ve always had some people take up agriculture as a new profession (and when that happened, say, during the settlement of the US west, there were always extremely high failure rates and ecological costs), the vast majority of those who did the work and stayed at it grew up on farms. We have never before in human history (except perhaps when we developed agriculture, and that didn’t happen all at once) had to teach an entire generation of non-farmers to farm. But that’s the problem we face.

So yay for the movement of young farmers to the land, for whatever reason. In the end, we need a lot more of them, no matter what.