Who grows my food? Who grows your food? It seems to be a pretty simple question right? The farmer does. And if that’s all you want to know then the answer really is that simple. But, what if you want to know more? You may have already read where your food comes from but that doesn’t answer who grows it. Not really anyways. Farming has come a really long ways in a relatively short time. Throughout the history of agriculture it was common for nearly everyone to produce food, at least in a garden. In fact, if you’ve seen pictures of old estates from Europe and seen the large, green lawns they have, it was seen as a status symbol. They had enough money that they didn’t have to devote the entirety of their land to food production, they could simply buy it, and the lawns proved that to everyone who could see it. This set them apart from the rest of the population who had to make every bit of land they could work produce something that could be eaten and/or traded.
Wheat As A Measure
Take wheat, a staple food for millennia. During and through the Medieval ages it was referred to in historical texts as a “Four-Fold Crop”. That means that for every bushel that was planted, four bushels could be harvested. This also meant that famine was common. It didn’t take much to push a population to the point where starvation was a very real threat. Drought, floods, war, and pestilence could all spell death for large portions of the population. Farming was an intrinsic and necessary part of day to day life for thousands of years for nearly everyone in the human population. Hunting and gathering were still done when the crops didn’t need tending, as was watching and managing livestock, but crops were paramount to survival throughout Europe.
Fast forward to the mid 1800’s in the United States. Farming now comprised roughly fifty percent of the population. By 1900 the average wheat yield in the United States was around fifteen bushels an acre. Compare that with the “Four-Fold” of Medieval Europe and that is a, roughly, 300-450% increase. Because of the growing yields per acre, less people were needed to farm. Where nearly everyone used to have their hand in farming in one way or another, now in the mid-late 1800’s only about half the population was involved.
Jumping ahead again to the last census of 2012, with a total available workforce of 243.7 million people, there were only about 4 million involved in farming in some way, whether through direct ownership or just working on the farm. That only comes to about two percent of the people living in the United States producing food for people in the U.S. and around the world. This is largely capable because of the increasingly good yields that are being achieved by various methods. The average yield of wheat per acre for 2016 was about fifty two bushels per acre through the U.S. which is about a 350% improvement over 1900, but a 1300% increase over Medieval Europe. Add in the diversity of crops grown nation and world wide and it can become easier to see why less and less people have their hand directly involved in the agriculture that feeds the world. Farming had gone in a few hundred years from nearly everyone being involved in agriculture to only two percent.
100 years ago odds were if you weren’t involved in growing food then someone in your family was. Fifty percent of the population was obviously a large portion and because of this it made it relatively easy to know where food came from and to understand how it came about getting from the farm to your plate. Even if you didn’t have your hand in the direct growing of it you could have very well been involved in the distribution of it through rail lines or processing areas like the meat yards of Chicago. Now though, in an increasingly technological and mechanized world less and less people are involved in agriculture and that leads to the root of the problem and thus the question: Who grows your food?
Painting A Picture
Because of the world that we live in, it is simultaneously difficult and very easy to learn things that were previously well known. Everyone used to be able to grow a garden, even if it performed poorly. Now, with large population centers being so urban, many don’t have space to even learn to do this themselves. Urban centers increasingly rely on rural areas to provide the food needed to continue life as it is. Enter the farmer.
The average farmer in the United States, the owner of the farm that is, is male, fifty eight years old, white, and has been farming nearly their whole life. The average age of farmers has been increasing over the last thirty years consistently, meaning that younger generations either aren’t as interested in farming or the increasing automation of the industry isn’t leaving room for as many young farmers as their older counterparts. This is all according to the 2012 Ag Census done by the USDA.
This doesn’t mean that there are a bunch of late-middle aged dudes out working the fields getting everything out of them to your table. This just means that the people who are making the decisions on farms are represented by this group. The problem with the census info is that it doesn’t very well represent people who actually work on those farms other than to say that half of them are probably not exactly legal. So we are going to dive into my thoroughly anecdotal evidence of the potato farming industry.
When it comes to dealing with potato growers, seed potato farmers have a bit of a different perspective. Rather than selling to a warehouse that ships usable product to supermarkets and therefore only dealing with purchasing agents, seed farmers deal with potato farmers themselves. So, because of this I see a fair amount of farmers and their operations myself. I have seen anywhere from the average farmer represented in the census to the guy that is represented in that census sitting on the side while his son my age is making all of the shots on what to grow, how much of it to grow, and how to go about it. I would say that farming is still largely done by families, no matter the size of the farm. This may be contrary to what you may think. I am sure that you have heard that farms are “Large Corporate Farms” run by groups of people only out to rape the ground and poison people.
I can tell you this isn’t true. First, if you ruin the ground, then what you use to make your money won’t make you money anymore. How does this make sense? Ground is finite, there is only so much to go around. Paying attention to your soil quality and doing everything that you can to improve it, or at the very least maintain it, is paramount to continuing operations. If you take everything out of the ground that you can and then try and leave, eventually there isn’t going to be anywhere to go except back to where you started and you’ll be worse off for it. Fixing problems is much more expensive than it is to maintain as you go. Second, if you poison and kill everyone you as a farmer are selling your product to, then who in the hell is going to be there to buy it when they’re all gone?!
If we take the main farmer and theorize that he has two sons that want to farm we can make a few deductions. If the farm is only large enough to properly sustain one full family then the farm will either have to expand or one son will have to leave. This can account for declining number of farms but a relatively even number of farmed acres. So, one farmer, two sons, and an increasing farm size to account for enough to go around for three families now. This speculative situation can partially account for the reason that non-primary farmers spend less time on the farm. With the automation of various parts of farming, there is both less to do and less needed done. One person can more effectively manage the entire operation with the amount of information available via automation than was possible even a decade ago.
This frees up the rest of the people in the operation to pursue outside occupations that can diversify incomes into the farm to help sustain in poor revenue years or even offer side benefits to the farm like running a freight company full time that can be easily shifted into moving the freight for the farm during harvest times. The possibility of people intrinsic in an operation to diversify income into either related or unrelated industries can help to insulate a farm against bad crop years caused by natural or market problems; i.e. drought or over supply leading to poorer prices.
So not only are farms becoming bigger, more efficient, and more diverse in scope, they are becoming increasingly the target of the general population. Potato farmers for instance have to follow a government inspection protocol called Good Agricultural Practices (GAP for short). This also means that in addition to all of the normal records that need to be kept to make sure that budgets and goals can be met, someone on the farm also has to be able to make sure that government guidelines for production of produce can be met and kept. This isn’t a bad thing, everyone likes safer food after all, it is just yet another thing that today’s farmers have to do.
Now our picture involves three people, a father and two sons on an expanding farm. The father is in his late fifties, we will say the sons are late twenties to early thirties. The father is the full time farmer who checks on things day to day. One son works on the farm part time and runs a freight shipping company full time. The other son we will say works at a fertilizer company full time and helps keep the records for the farm part time. Our image is still incomplete in that we don’t have any other people working on the farm but I think this hypothetical has gone far enough to get the idea across.
Filling In The Details
Now we can jump into stuff that isn’t as anecdotal or hypothetical. Lets use the farm that I work on with my brothers and my dad. That way what I say is true and the only people who can call bullshit are the guys I work with! These are going to be pretty basic descriptions that won’t be completely inclusive but will work to help show who grows your food.
The way our farm is set up is we have my dad who owns it. He makes the major decisions and handles the financial stuff. He also talks to a lot of our customers and works on continuing sales to them, some of whom we’ve had some for twenty plus years. He also decides which varieties of potatoes we are going to grow and what we are going to do with them for sure.
I take care of the majority of hiring for seasonal work and all of the paperwork involved. This includes both local workers and our immigrant workers. I do all of our certification documentation so we can grow certified seed. I do our inventory tracking for our potatoes including; what customer wants what and how much, where it is in our storage’s, and making sure they store as well as possible. I also arrange all of the freight for getting our potatoes in and out through the year.
My brother Josh takes care of all of our field operations on our home farm. Anything from spring tillage to harvest in the fall is his responsibility. He manages all of the irrigation, from startup to finish. He maintains the equipment used in the field. He also manages our fuel system and handles those purchases and deliveries.
My brother Jud manages one of our satellite locations where we do early generation increase. He does everything Josh does on our home farm plus some of what I do there. It is a smaller farm which is why one person can handle all of it instead of breaking it into pieces like Josh and I have.
My brother-in-law Athan manages another satellite location where we do all of our early generation seed, starting with Mini-Tubers, and does the same things Jud does on his. These short explanations may seem insubstantial for Jud and Athan because of how much they really do do, but I figured repeating would simply be redundant.
So, if you take the five of us and see what we do there is a decent picture. We all have our bit of what we are responsible for that makes it so we can do the job we do as well as we can. Each part is important. There are a number of other people involved in our operation; truck drivers, foremen, servicemen, operators, laborers, etc.. Everyone involved matters and it takes many people to get seed potatoes done correctly. With the amount of varieties and generations of seed that we deal with it takes everyone, and some decent spreadsheets, to keep track of everything. Farming isn’t done (usually) with just the owner. It involves a team of people dedicated to bringing about the best crop possible so that consumers actually want to eat it.
My generation of our family has been farming in Idaho for five generations now. It’s something that not everyone in the family has been able, or necessarily wanted, to do. It’s not for everyone admittedly, but it is a fun thing to be able to see something that you have worked at for a few years finally be sent off to a warehouse to get packed and sent to supermarkets. We enjoy hearing from people who have seen “Parkinson Seed Farms, St. Anthony, Idaho” on the marker board at the local Five Guys restaurant chain. It’s fun seeing pictures of seed we have sent around the world growing and hearing about how it performed.
That’s who I would say ultimately grows your food. The family who enjoys doing it and wants to continue doing so.