A few weeks ago, my parents received a piece of mail from the United States Department of Agriculture. Rumpled and slightly torn, the envelope was stuffed with twenty-four pieces of paper. Just to the left of my family’s rural Tennessee address, six bolded, all-caps, enlarged words stood out: YOUR RESPONSE IS REQUIRED BY LAW.
My parents weren’t alone in receiving this formal communication. In fact, 3 million farmers across the nation received the same envelope with the same forms inside.
Every five years, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service sends a detailed questionnaire to farmers as part of the U.S. Census of Agriculture. In response, farmers submit a series of answers that describe the size of their farms, the crops and livestock they produce, and their own personal demographics. This information, which the government has collected at different intervals and in different ways since the 19th century, is crucial to understanding American agriculture. Federal, state, and local governments—along with researchers, nonprofits, businesses, trade associations, farmers, cooperatives, and others—all rely on the data.
The last few Censuses of Agriculture have revealed some alarming trends. For one, America’s farmland acreage is declining. Using information from the Census of Agriculture as well as its own geospatial analyses, American Farmland Trust found that 11 million acres of agricultural land were converted to non-farm uses through real estate development between 2001 and 2016. Forward-looking projections suggest that we’ll compromise an additional 18 million acres of farmland by 2040 if development trends continue. In communities throughout the nation—and especially in rural places, like my hometown, within commuting distance from growing cities—pastures, fields, and woodlands are transforming into subdivisions, strip malls, and parking lots. All this occurs while severe droughts, intense floods, and shifting temperatures challenge the land’s ability to produce food, fuel, and fiber.
We’ve also witnessed a decline in the number of farms. Since 1997, the total number of farms in America declined by 8 percent, or about 180,000 farms, suggesting a continuing trend toward fewer and larger operations. Today, only 4 percent of farms—those over 2,000 acres in size—control 58 percent of all American farmland.
In terms of farmers themselves, demographic data paints a concerning picture. The average age of the American farmer continues to increase, one of many signs that suggest difficulties for new and beginning farmers. And although more women are gaining authentic opportunities in farming, which is undoubtedly good news, we still see historical and present-day legacies of discrimination impacting American agriculture. In the early 20th century, Black people made up about 14 percent of American farmers. As of 2017, less than 1.5 percent of America’s farmers were Black. They collectively farm only 4.7 million acres, or roughly 0.5 percent of U.S. agricultural land.
Some Black farmers—like farmers of all races—voluntarily left agriculture for different opportunities and geographies. But well-documented racism, directly and indirectly, drove many farmers from their fields and their homes.
To be sure, the data above is incomplete. The entire 2017 Census of Agriculture report weighs in at a whopping 820 pages, so I omitted an abundance of facts and figures. And it’s possible that the 2022 Census of Agriculture results, which won’t be ready for a few more years, will indicate reversals and progress. But the statistics cited are enough to tell us something important: We need to work for change in American agriculture.
To put it bluntly, farmland is a nonrenewable resource. Once it’s converted to another use, it’s gone. We need places to live, work, and play, but we need places to grow food, too.
We need the numerous ecological services that farmland can provide, particularly when that land is lovingly tended with thoughtful, place-based, regenerative practices. Our planet faces dire threats from climate change. With care and commitment, agriculture can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
We need more land to be in the care of small and midsized farmers, who can abide by what Wes Jackson calls an “eyes-to-acres” ratio that enables attunement, awareness, and stewardship. These diverse, smaller-scale farms once made up a vital part of America’s rural economies and communities, and in some places, they still do. But their existence is threatened by consolidation—of land, wealth, and power.
We need a strengthened emphasis on economic and racial justice, and we need to follow the lead of courageous organizations like the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Black Family Land Trust in achieving it. Recent efforts have yielded progress in this realm, but conversations—and action—around equity in agriculture must continue.
In short, we need a response. Yes, that applies to the farmers across America, my family included, who should fill out their Census of Agriculture forms before the February 6 deadline, but it also applies to all Americans. It’s required not by law, but by the values and virtues that should undergird our food and agricultural systems: Empathy. Fidelity. Justice. Affection.
If we want a better fate for farmers and farming—and in turn, a better future for people, places, and the planet—then we must reckon with our current agricultural reality. We must act with hope and courage.
Our response is required.
Brooks Lamb is the author of Love for the Land: Lessons from Farmers Who Persist in Place (Yale Univ. Press, 2023). He works as American Farmland Trust’s Land Protection & Access Specialist and lives in Memphis, Tennessee.