It’s an annual Thanksgiving tradition.
Around holiday time each year, the Farm Bureau announces its calculation of the number of average people fed by the American farmer. According to Farm Bureau, the average American farmer today produces enough food for 155 other people. In 1960, the statistic was 28 other people.
Ag policymakers tend to celebrate each year’s higher number as a resounding endorsement of the efficiency and productivity of the American farmer. They’re right, of course, but pardon me if I don’t exactly share their enthusiasm.
The latest statistic is testimony to the ability of an industrialized, capital-intensive production system to crank out large volumes of basic raw commodities at relatively low prices. But, our customers are increasingly becoming aware that this cheap food production model leaves them short-changed in terms of variety, wholesomeness, and quality. They are also increasingly concerned about how this industrially-produced food impacts their personal health, and the health of the planet.
Trust me, farmers aren’t benefiting either.
One farmer feeding 155 people simply means that there are a lot fewer farmers in rural America. That translates into fewer children in local schools, fewer volunteers to serve on school boards, and fewer people to patronize local Main Street businesses. Many remaining farmers today feel isolated—and even suspicious—of the larger society. The move by people in 11 Colorado counties to secede from the state earlier this year reflected that isolation and suspicion.
In 1988, Robert Redford adapted Jon Nicol’s book, The Milagro Beanfield War, into a movie depicting one small farmer’s fight against land developers and greedy interests. At one point in the movie, the farmer, Joe Mondragon, asks his wife, “What good is a community if no one you know lives there anymore?”
Each passing year in which fewer farmers supply the bulk of food and fiber produced around the world is a year in which farmers will continue to become disconnected from their customers, and become disconnected within their communities.
The organic, natural and local food movements all have the potential to serve as powerful counterweights to the continued concentration and consolidation. By connecting with farmers seeking an alternative to the industrial ag treadmill, those consumers can restore connections based upon shared values of healthy food, healthy land, healthy communities and healthy families.
We’ll know that these connections are taking root when the number of people fed by an average farmer begins to reverse. Then, I’ll join in the celebration.