The old economics of new agriculture: Drive or be driven

aerial farmland

A recent, number-laden bulletin posted on the University of Illinois website, farmdoc daily, caught my attention for two reasons.

First, its data, drawn mostly from several U.S. Census of Agriculture, paints a troubling picture of U.S. agriculture today. More importantly, that picture suggests American ag policy needs to make “strategic” changes to meet new challenges — climate change and new global competitors are two — that U.S. farmers and ranchers will confront.

For example, notes the report, the amount of land farmed in U.S. farms peaked at 1.2 billion acres in 1950. In 2017, land farmed totaled 900 million acres, or “26% less.” The “largest decline in land use category [over that period] … was farm woodlots with a loss of 147 million acres.”

Interestingly, however, “Harvested cropland peaked in 1930 at 359 million acres, compared to 320 million acres in the 2017 Census …”


Much of that difference can be accounted for in today’s Conservation Reserve Program; it held 23 million acres in 2017 and no acres in 1930 because the program didn’t begin until 1985.

In fact — and here comes the report’s conclusion — today’s “voluntary conservation programs,” mostly CRP, have “materially reduced the ability of the U.S. to expand acres in response to profits from crop production” compared to the two most recent, high-profit eras, 1973-1980 and 2007-2013 when one key element of farm policy was “set-asides.”

As such, maybe a “potential strategic response” to this “conversion of cropland” would be for the U.S. to focus more “public crop research from a yield to multi-cropping focus” so “… each acre offers the potential to grow both U.S. crop output … as well as increase land for environmental uses …”


I read the numbers, dug up a few more, and came up with a more urgent forecast. I know; big surprise. No question, American farmers and ranchers will face growing pressure to balance increased food production with increased climate change.

That reality suggests our current approach — too much carbon, too little diversity, too many government dollars underwriting both — will force change. And we can change. In fact, we’re good at it because we’ve gotten a lot of practice with change over the past near century.

For example, according to Ag Census numbers, in 1929, U.S. farmers grew 33.5 million acres of oats, 62 million acres of wheat and 2.9 million acres of soybeans. In 2017, U.S. farmers grew only 814,000 acres of oats, just 39 million acres of wheat and a whopping 90 million acres of soybeans. So we can do change, even big-time change.


Equally important, though, is what hasn’t changed. In 1929, the Ag Census showed 43% of all U.S farmland, or 411 million acres, in “pasture.” Strikingly, even incredibly, the amount of U.S. land in pasture in the 2017 Census was 415 million acres.

So, from just those last few numbers it would be safe to predict that tomorrow’s necessary changes might very well involve huge shifts in crop acreages (I’m looking at you, corn) and little, if any, reduction in pastureland.

Major role

Moreover, at 40%-plus of our current U.S. farmland base, today’s enormous amount of pasture will likely play a major role in any multi-use/climate-imposed change to food production. How? Think multi-species, multi-crop — including carbon farming — approaches that will transition low-impact pastures into long-term, high-profit acres.

There’s even a throwback government-payment model to achieve the shifts in land use likely needed for U.S. agriculture to decrease its carbon footprint while increasing its carbon sequestration: Yes, land set-asides, the hallmark of almost every Farm Bill from the Great Depression through 1996’s Freedom to Farm legislation.

Can’t be done? Maybe not by farmers who are both heavily invested in the machinery and politics of today’s government-subsidized, no-tomorrow model. But tomorrow is coming; that’s a given. What’s also a given is that farmers can choose to drive the change, or be driven by it.


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!

Previous articleSeptember splendor holds promise
Next articleVisiting Nome with Larry Smithhisler
Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children.


  1. Alan, one problem that I see in pasture conversion is the pastureland itself. On our farms, pasture is simply land that cannot be farmed due to terrain, rocks, wet spots, etc. We would LIKE to utilize more of this land but it’s very nature makes it impossible. I am sure not all pasture is like this, but much of it is, at least in my limited experience on other farms!

  2. In case anyone is interested as a consumer I like to eat meat and I will not support these leftist ideas of eliminating meat and eating vegetables that they try to make like meat. Meat esp. dark meat has iron and other minerals that you need for the human body and CANNOT for vegetables. Meat is Meat. Don’t try to make a vegetable meat, nor meat a vegetable. They both have their place and are not identical. They both offer the human body what we need to be healthy!
    I eat real meat and real vegetables and I like them both!


We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.