Where have all the farmers gone?

As I noted in my last post, my home area of Kendall County lost an unprecedented amount of farmland in the five years between 2007 and 2012, with more than 37,000 acres being taken out of production.

Some of it was lost to commercial development, but much more of it went to residential developers before the Crash of ’08 brought local development to a halt.

At least commercial development has the benefit of being a net tax gain for local residents. Residential development, however, is usually a net tax loss. Why? Commercial development creates not only increased real estate tax revenue over what that same land would produce as farmland, but it also generates sales tax revenue on which local municipal government, from villages and cities to counties and state government, depends. Residential real estate, on the other hand, gobbles up tax revenue at prodigious rates without producing enough revenue to break even.

All that residential development, as it absorbed so much good farmland, led to a net property tax revenue loss, only some of which was covered by commercial development.

And then what happened to all the farmers whose land began to grow houses instead of corn, beans, and livestock? They joined a trend that has been going on for decades, either leaving their way of life altogether or moving their farming operations out of the area to rural areas where development is less vigorous.

In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau reported there were 1,086 farms in Kendall County. Of those, nearly 80 percent were raising some livestock along with grain and forage crops. Average farm size in Kendall County was 180 acres in 1950.

By 2014, there were only 364 farms in the county, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Just 11 percent had some sort of livestock around the place. And the average size of county farms had risen to 356 acres.

Those figures illustrate what’s been happening in U.S. agriculture in general for nearly 200 years: Mechanization, improved agricultural techniques, and genetic manipulation of crops have led to vastly increased yields and vastly decreased labor needed to provide the grain and meat needed to feed not only ourselves, but a good chunk of the world, too. In effect, farmers and their communities have been victims of their own success.

In 1850, which was just after the period of settlement, it took about 90 hours of labor to produce 100 bushels of corn. The average yield was about 40 bushels per acre.

Farm Picking corn by hand

Until the late 1930s, virtually all the nation’s corn crop was picked by hand, one ear at a time, stored to dry, then shelled from the cob and finally hauled to market. Above, Lyle Shoger pauses with a full load on his way to the crib. (Little White School Museum collection)

Different varieties of corn were gradually introduced, including hybrids that would eventually lead to drastically increase yields, as were scientific farming methods first championed by English and Scottish immigrants who began arriving in northern Illinois in the late 1840s. Thanks to those factors, plus increasing mechanization, by 1900, while the yield per acre of corn production was about the same 40 bushels to the acre, the labor to produce 100 bushels of corn had dropped significantly, to just 35 hours.

During the next half-century, commercial fertilizers, hybrid crop varieties, the impact of agriculture science research at state land grant universities (like the University of Illinois), and the near-complete disappearance of horse-powered farming had dramatic effects. By 1950, not only had yields risen by 25 percent, but the amount of labor needed to produce 100 bushels of corn had once again plummeted to just 14 hours.

And then came the real revolution in both mechanization and plant science. Howard Doster, a Purdue Extension farm management specialist, writing some 20 years ago, noted: “By the 1990s, the average American farmer produced a bushel of corn in less than one minute of labor.

Indeed, only 2.5 hours of labor are needed to produce 100 bushels of corn these days and yields of 200 and more bushels per acre are not uncommon.

So, you’d think that more productivity and larger farms might reasonably lead to the need for fewer farmers. And you’d be right. According to the USDA, between 2000 and 2009 alone, 56 percent of rural American counties lost population. The effect on most small towns in Illinois seems to have been a lot less drastic than in states that are far more rural. In Iowa, smaller towns are dying and disappearing, with few able to support much more than a Casey’s General Store and the local elevator/lumber yard. That’s led to the disappearance of community institutions in those small towns, from churches to schools, as farm families slowly disappear.

But what about the loss of all that prime farmland here in the Fox River Valley? Isn’t that creating a future food crisis? Maybe. But probably not.

Farm drovers

Livestock, from hogs to cattle to horses and sheep, were all driven to the Chicago market by farmers in the Fox and DuPage river valleys. It allowed the crops raised outside the city to be fed to animals that then walked to market, instead of hauling the grain itself.

When pioneer farmers arrived here on Kendall County’s prairies, each farmer’s first task was to support his own family, and then sell what little remained. Here in Chicago’s hinterland, that meant growing crops that could be fed to livestock, which, in turn, was driven to the Chicago market. Grain, too, was also gradually grown for sale, a market that exploded as soon as rail lines pushed west of Chicago. Subsistence farming disappeared relatively quickly after the rails arrived, and grain and livestock exports became the bedrock of Kendall County’s economy.

modern corn harvest

Modern combined harvesters not only pick the ears from several rows of corn at once but then they shell the kernels from the cob, producing a crop ready to ship to market saving astonishing amounts of time and money.

By 1940, with many farmers still relying on horses for power, each American farmer could feed 19 people. By 1950, U.S. farmers were beginning to export grain and meat to the rest of the world, with each farmer able to feed 27 people. During the past several decades, progress in crop varieties, farming techniques, and mechanization has led to a dramatic increase in U.S. farm productivity. These days, although there are far, far fewer farmers than there used to be, each one feeds an estimated 155 people here and around the world—and the number keeps inching up each year.

So, getting back to the question in the title above, where have all the farmers gone? Well, some got rich by selling their land to developers, which is what frequently happened around these parts. Others were ruined by the frequent ups and downs of farm economics and decided to take up jobs where drought, floods, or communicable livestock disease couldn’t ruin their families. Others, a distilled few hardy survivors, remain to make their own living and to feed the rest of us.

From the go-go development in Kendall County’s eastern and northern tier of townships, pick a road—Galena Road’s a good one—and head west. It won’t take many minutes before you will find yourself in a landscape dominated by corn and soybean fields, much as the entire Chicago metro region once was. But keep in mind that the vast majority of the barns and corn cribs and other outbuildings you see are as obsolete for farming as a Model T would be commuting into the Loop. Farmers are maintaining them, mostly, for their own pride in keeping a neat farmstead. And some for nostalgia, too, for a time of small farms, small rural towns with their small rural churches and schools, and the rest of what agricultural life had been for decades upon decades. While we sometimes feel that we’ve irrevocably lost any connection with our area’s rural heritage, it really doesn’t take much time or effort to realize those connections still exist. There are just not nearly as many as there used to be.

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Filed under Business, Farming, Frustration, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events, Technology

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