By Daniel Kelley: Normal, Illinois
We hear a lot of sharp talk these days about “the 1%.” Its members have too much. Or they don’t contribute enough. You’ve heard the complaints from politicians and pundits.
As we approach Labor Day—a public holiday for honoring our country’s workers—I’d like to mention a different group of “one-percenters.”
They are America’s farmers.
We should be grateful that they’re laboring on farms because it means the rest of us don’t have to.
What a tremendous blessing. Throughout history, most people have had to devote most of their time to the backbreaking work of food production. Today, however, the U.S. Census Bureau counts about 2 million “principal farm operators” in the United States. They make up roughly 1 percent of the adult population.
Because of them, 99 percent of Americans can do things other than plant seeds and weed fields for a living. They can work in hospitals or libraries or factories or restaurants—all because a tiny minority of their fellow Americans supplies their food.
At the time of our country’s founding, about 90 percent of Americans were involved in agriculture. One of them, of course, was George Washington: He lived on a farm at Mount Vernon.
Abraham Lincoln grew up on a farm, but he didn’t remain a farmer. Instead, he became a lawyer—an example of how better food production already was allowing people to pursue new callings. When Lincoln was elected president, about 60 percent of Americans worked in agriculture.
The percentage of Americans who are farmers continued to decline. When Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, about four in ten Americans worked in agriculture. During the Second World War, this figure dropped to nearly one in five. By 1970, farmers made up only 5 percent of the U.S. labor force.
And today, we’re one-percenters.
This is a triumph of workforce productivity, as smaller numbers of people have become responsible for larger bounties of food.
I’ve seen this transition on my own farm. My father and uncle farmed about 300 acres in central Illinois. My two brothers and I took over the operation and expanded it. Today, we grow corn and soybeans on about 3,000 acres.
So we’ve gone from 300 acres that supported two families to 3,000 acres that support three families.
We work hard, but we don’t work harder than my dad did. Instead, we have better tools, from advanced seed technologies to combines that can harvest eight rows at once. We also have greater expectations: What would have been a bumper crop for an earlier generation would be a disappointment to us.
My son will follow me into farming, but my daughters won’t. One of them works for an insurance company. The other is a jobs counselor at a school. Because American farmers are so good at growing food, they can pursue these other careers for their own satisfaction as well as the benefit of others.
Everyone’s quality of life is better.
Yet we also must recognize the special challenges of our day. As fewer people farm, more are disconnected from food production—and they have a poor understanding of what farmers actually do.
Let the record show I spend as much time in front of a computer analyzing yield data and commodity prices as I do behind the steering wheel of a tractor. And I don’t wear overalls.
The growing disconnection between farmers and non-farmers leads to confusion about everything from GMOs to crop protection—and oftentimes to bad regulations and consumer fads that make little sense to the people who are both the best food producers in the history of the world as well as workers who live closer to the land and the environment than just about anybody else in the United States.
I wouldn’t want to switch places with my dad, going back to farming the way he did. I like the sophistication and productivity of today’s agriculture and the way they enable people to pursue other professions.
I also wish more Americans appreciated that for us, “sustainability” isn’t just a buzzword. It’s what we do for a living.
On Labor Day, let’s remember truck drivers, nurses, burger flippers, and everybody else who works hard—and also the one-percenters who make so much of our diverse and evolving workforce possible.
Daniel Kelley grows corn and soybeans on a family farm near Normal, Illinois. He volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.