In 1920, Farm and Dairy republished an excerpt from the Cleveland Sunday Leader, titled “Choosing a Vocation.”
“A good farmer must be willing to assume responsibilities. The man who is willing to quit work and forget his job at 5 will never be a successful farmer. He must be a hard worker, have a real love of the outdoors, be resourceful, progressive and willing to find his happiness in what he can accomplish,” the article reads.
Young people who wanted to farm needed more than just a good work ethic, the article said. Some capital, to get land and equipment, and to “tide over the first year” was essential.
Every good farmer needed “at least a common school education, and should have some high school.” Young people could get more education through extension short courses and university courses.
But just book learning wasn’t enough. Those with no experience other than schooling should get a job as a farmhand first. Farmhands could expect to make $25-$100 (equal to about $340-$1,355 in today’s dollars) per month.
Today, the world looks very different than it did in the early 1900s. And yet, some of the same obstacles to farming remain: capital and land access, knowledge, discrimination. In some cases, they’ve gotten worse.
Getting into farming, especially as a first generation farmer, is complicated.
Farming has always been tied to a sort of moral superiority. Many believed — and still believe — that rural life and farm work is more honest, hardworking and simple than city life.
But young people have been leaving rural areas for a long time. The U.S. started out largely rural. Most people lived on farms, or in small towns and villages. Now, farmers make up less than 2% of the population.
It’s no secret that farmers are getting older, either. As of 2017, only 8% of farmers were under 35. The average age of farmers was 57.5. That number has been creeping up for decades. It’s been over 50 since at least the mid-’70s.
There’s good reason for that. Farming isn’t easy for young people to get into — especially for people who don’t already have a farm in the family. Farming is capital intensive. You need land, equipment and access to credit.
The reality is, people have been leaving farms — or struggling to start farms — for over a century.
“You see the trend of people moving away from farms, beginning in the 1870s,” said R. Douglas Hurt, professor in the history department at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Farming was hard work, and not always for much money. Increasingly, there were better paying jobs off the farm.
Just like today, Hurt said, some young people may not have been able to stay on the farm even if they wanted to, if the operation wasn’t big enough or profitable enough to support two generations of farmers at once.
By the 20th century, it was getting harder and harder for people who weren’t inheriting a farm, or marrying into one, to get into agriculture.
“[Land access] was becoming increasingly important once the public lands had been sold, basically by the end of the 19th century,” Hurt said. “By the 20th century, if you didn’t already have some experience or access to land or capital and technology, it’s very difficult to get started.”
Most of the public lands made available through the Homestead Act of 1862 were taken by the early 1900s, so farmers needed credit to buy land. It wasn’t easy to get long-term credit for agriculture, and what was available often had high interest rates, according to the Farm Credit Administration’s history. So, Congress eventually passed the Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916.
The act created federal land banks and national farm loan associations, which offered long term credit for farmers to expand and develop their farms. This was the beginning of what eventually became the Farm Credit System.
Later bills added more banks to offer things like short term credit and options for cooperatives. The program saw changes through boom and bust periods during the 1900s, and today, includes three federal land banks, nearly 70 associations and one agricultural credit bank.
The ways people learn to farm have changed over time, too.
“It was received knowledge,” Hurt said. “You learned from your father and mother and did things the way they did things.”
An 1862 act created the land grant system, intended to help provide agricultural education. There wasn’t much to teach, however, until the Hatch Act of 1867 created more opportunities for research in agriculture.
That brought up the next problem: farmers weren’t receptive to new knowledge. Even people who read about the results of research in farm papers and other sources often decided it simply didn’t apply to them — until the extension system was created in 1914.
“If someone stands next to you and shows you, it’ll take,” Hurt said.
As land grant universities did more research and developed their programs, there was more for young people to learn at these schools. But even people who studied agriculture weren’t necessarily going back to the family farm — many studied ag economics, agronomy or other agricultural fields, Hurt said. Advances in technology and productivity also meant fewer farmers were needed to produce more food.
As more and more people left farms and rural life, less and less people had connections to agriculture. Farms grew bigger and became fewer. And it was hard to get into farming without connections. Often, farmers bought and sold to and from neighbors, rather than to outsiders, Hurt said.
Farmers of color experienced unique challenges, as well. As the overall number of farmers declined, the number of Black farmers decreased more sharply.
In 1920, there were close to a million Black farmers, USDA data shows. By 1997, there were only about 18,000 — just under 2% of the number of Black farmers in 1920.
By contrast, white farmers decreased from about 5.5 million in 1920 to 1.8 million in 1997 — leaving about 33% of the number of white farmers around in 1920. The number of overall farms in the U.S. has continued to decline slowly since 1997.
Discrimination, especially in USDA lending practices, contributed to that inequity, making it harder for Black farmers to get loans to purchase land or keep the land they already owned. In the late 1990s, several people filed class action lawsuits against the USDA on behalf of Black farmers. The department agreed to a settlement in the Pigford v. Glickman suit in 1997. Under the agreement approved in 1999, about 22,721 farmers were found eligible for the claims process, and the federal government paid out about $1.06 billion to those claimants by the end of 2011.
But large numbers of applicants never got a decision back on whether or not their claims had merits. Because of that, there have since been several other settlements approved or considered over the years. The settlements still don’t undo the loss of land and family legacies.
In 1921, Farm and Dairy published an article that suggested farmers consider the troubling pattern of young people leaving farms for cities in a new light.
Young people were leaving, the article concluded, because the people around them lacked enthusiasm.
“If parents have no enthusiasm about themselves and their work, how can they expect their children to become very enthusiastic about the farm and its work?” it asks. “Is it any wonder they seek the city where enthusiasm prevails?”
But, there is still enthusiasm in both rural and urban gardens and farms. Despite barriers of days past and present, new farmers are finding ways to get into the industry.
They’re coming up with creative ways of getting on the land. They’re learning through formal education, from other farmers, from experiences.
They’re working together and with their communities as part of large scale and small scale food systems. They are trying out new ways of farming, while learning from old ways, and while seeking solutions to a multitude of challenges.
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