The American Farmer and The Silent Exodus of the 20th Century
If you have lived in the Midwest, or Northeast in the past 50 years chance are you have heard about how big cities like Detroit, Michigan; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Gary, Indiana; or Baltimore, Maryland have not only seen a population decline, but the jobs that were once prevalent there are now gone. What has rarely made the news cycle is that is that during that same period rural America was going through a similar decline, which still continues to this day.
Unlike the rapid loss of jobs in the major industries like steel, or manufacturing, rural America was seeing a paradigm shift in the way farming was done and it would lead to a devastating loss of available jobs that was so spread out it has pretty much gone unnoticed for 50 years, even though it would be as if New York City, Los Angeles, & Chicago lost 70% of their total urban & suburban population. While news about declines in small to medium sized towns would make the rounds in regional, or national media, it was usually in reference to the closure of a specific company and no correlation was made with the slowly shrinking population of farm workers and its effect on the businesses in the community.
Over the last half of the 20th Century the number of farmers & ranchers in America shrunk from over 30 million to just under 3 million, where it has remained steady pretty much since the early 1990s. However unlike many urban areas that mainly saw a shift of populations from urban centers to suburban towns, most rural communities have continued to see declining populations with numbers measured by entire counties, or whole parts of a state.
How Did We Lose 30 Million Farm Jobs?
Advancements in how we farm is the single biggest factor in the decline, or as Christopher Merrett, the director of the Illinois Institute of Rural Affairs, put it in a recent interview I did with him, a “technological treadmill” is what eliminated most of the jobs.
Long gone are the days when passenger trains would see men getting off at rural stops and go looking for farm work during planting & harvest times, replaced by more efficient tractors & combines. However the more steady year-round jobs for local men & women was what started to pass after in the 1950s & 60s. A farm that would have required an extra 12 farmhands in the 1940s & 50s maybe only needed four, or five by the 1970s and by the 1980s that was down to one, maybe two.
Technology had made it so that not only could a farm be almost a one man show, but in some ways you could even keep farming long past an age that would have required you to hang up your boots 30 to 40 years prior. Now, not only were their less jobs, but to take over the family farm has also become more difficult, as family farms in many cases have little opportunity for their children to earn a real living until the parents step aside.
As technology advanced however so did the yield, but as the yield grew the prices didn’t always stay in line. To keep up farmers had to adapt, or go under. Hybrid seeds, circle irrigation, in-tractor computers measuring just how much fertilizer to release, and GPS aided devices all helped lead to record yields per acre, but the treadmill was already going and the only way to produce more, was with more land.
The Bigger The Farm
While the total acres of farmland & pastures in the U.S. is down 20% from its high in the 1950s (agricultural land totaled 914 millions acres in 2012, down from an all-time high of 1.159 billion in 1950) the total number of farms has drastically shrunk, 65% alone between 1950 & 1990. While the country has out paced the 1950s and earlier in shear numbers of agricultural production, with that has come the race to stay profitable and the overall size of farms has been steadily increasing as well. The average acreage of a farm in 1950 was 216, and today it is close to 500 acres.
This means not only is farming being done with fewer workers and less land, but it’s also it’s also becoming more concentrated on among a smaller group of people. And today that group of people is increasingly older (more on this in another post).
So no big surprise the modern farm is more efficient and larger than the farms of 50 to 60 years ago. This isn’t news right? Everybody knows these things. What does this have to do with the death of small towns in America?
As The Farm Goes, So Does The Community
In no way do I want people to assume that I’m implying the majority of the people just picked up and left for larger cities once they were no longer working as farm laborers. No, most people stayed in these communities where a spouse had job at the local retail store, or school. They had children who attended the local schools, maybe they got another job fixing farm machinery, or working at the local grain elevator. However, small changes started to take effect and much like water can cut through stone, a grand canyon of population decline cut through much of rural agricultural America at the end of the last century and is continuing to get bigger.
Farmers no longer needed large families in hopes of helping run the farm. A family that might have had 7 children now was more likely to have two, or three. Local children who weren’t inline to take over a farm were almost pushed to away to college and rarely returned after graduation. Those farmhands that stayed, well, the retail shops, & restaurants closed and slowly people who couldn’t find work moved to the next town over that had it. Counties without a town of a certain size have been way more impacted by this than towns close to a larger city, where people can find work, but still live in their small community.
Those who did stay are usually older and ready to retire and have found the exodus has lead to cheaper property, or rent. The greying of rural America is however a topic for another day, but it will only be speeding up this decline in the next 15-20 years. Soon the local school would see it’s last graduating class before being merged with another shrinking, but slightly larger school maybe 10-15 miles away. Chances are the county hospital, or health clinic closed and if you are lucky the last doctor in the area is already working well into his retirement, if he is still working at all.
Imagine a small town surrounded by 50 farms. Each hiring a dozen farm hands throughout the year, the farmers maybe each having 4-5 kids each, with some of those farms hands being married with kids of their own. You could easily have a town of 600-700 people just in farming alone. Now cut the number of farms by 65% and you’re down to 18 farms, that maybe employ one extra person and chances are the farm owners are older with no children living with them, you’ve just cut the population down to around 100. If you picture that on a country wide scale then you can begin to see what has & is happening.
In an ironic twist, the death knell for most small towns seem to be when the last grocery store closes, surrounded by the very land that produces the food for the country, the remaining residents are forced to drive sometimes over 50 miles to find food for themselves. Take away from this what you will, but these proud little towns that once may have had a population of 500 people, or more, now are on the brink of unincorporating, with Main Streets that are lined with vacant lots, abandoned stores, all in the shadow of a once important grain elevator and the last standing business is usually a bar. Because at the end nobody likes to drink alone.
Help tell the stories of Lost Americana.
First, if you think the documenting of rural American stories in the wake of a major exodus of its population is worth telling, please share this page and others on social media.
Second, are you interested in telling your story, or do you know someone who might be? Connect with me via email, or phone 773-924-1493. I’m specifically interested in stories from people who have lived multiple generations in the same rural town, or area, but I’m open to the view from the current younger generation as well. I travel all over the country so you never know when I may end up in your town.
Third, thankfully gas has been cheap, but traveling one, two, sometimes three thousand miles isn’t. Between gas, lodging & meals, let’s just say my credit card gets a little more use than normal. I don’t like asking for something with nothing in return, so luckily there is an amazing photo gallery of images from my travels over the last 20 years. You can own your own piece of Lost Americana and know that you’re contributing to helping me tell more stories.