May 23, 2014

Historic Changes in Farming - Less Land, Much More Productive

In 1790, 93% of the population of the United States was rural, most of them farmers. By 1990, only 200 years later, barely 2% of our population are farmers.
Image of vintage farming
The agriculture we have today in the United States is unique. No nation has ever had so few people actively farming. This is a profound social change that has isolated most people from rural life and from an appreciation of the complexities and uncertainties of food production. For the most part people take agricultural production for granted. Our society has had no experience with true food scarcity. Our supermarkets always have full shelves and food is cheap. Today we spend only 10 percent of our income on food. In 1950 we spent 22 percent of our income on food, and in 1935 a moderate income farm family in North Carolina spent 47% of their total living on food. In the past it took much more time and effort to obtain or produce food.
It surprises most people that under natural conditions the soils in North Carolina are too low in plant nutrients to sustain crop production. For most of our history we have practiced shifting cultivation. We have cut and burned the forest, grown crops for a few years until the fertility was exhausted, and abandoned the land. This was the system used by the American Indians, it was the system adopted by European settlers, and it is a system still used in much of the world today. It is often referred to it as "slash and burn" agriculture. Sustainable agriculture became possible only after commercial fertilizers were made available in the late 1800s.

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