When I was born in 1952, there were 203,000 farms in Iowa, only 11,000 fewer than when my dad was born in 1926. By 2002, the number had dropped to about 90,000, with roughly the same acreage in production in a state with a population that had remained roughly the same. The national numbers followed the same track: fewer farms, bigger farms, less-diverse farms. To a lot of people, this looked like progress because the ideal of efficiency promulgated by the Department of Agriculture was bigger yields with fewer people.
This industrial notion of efficiency has always seemed terribly inefficient in other important ways: socially, culturally and environmentally.
It seems to me that the more we think we know, the more our true ignorance shows through in the end. Be it our agricultural policy, our food policy, our drug policy…Hell, even our financial policy all have come back to haunt us in the past few years.
I was born just a couple of years after Verlyn. Almost all of my extended family lived in rural communities. Most did not farm…but all depended on the health of the farms for their incomes. My nuclear family was one of the few in our generation that made the move to the urban side of America. On my trips back to the area of Texas where my parents were raised, I have seen the urbanization of large swaths of these farmlands.
In a very real sense, they are going back to an earlier model of farming in Iowa. The farms are more diverse, and so are the crops they grow. To me, this is where the new passion for local foods finds its real meaning, and the best news is that Iowa is not alone. Nationwide, there are some 300,000 new farms since 2002. And the farmers? More diverse than ever, including a higher number of women. This is a genuine source of hope for American agriculture.
I am seeing some of the same changes in the counties around my home. More small farmers, growing more varied crops…Including some that wouldn’t have been considered crops thirty to forty years ago like sod grass…