A Farewell to Farms
Missourinet reports that the federal farm bill has increased the maximum loan under the Beginning Farmer Loan Program from $250,000 to $450,000. The rationale for this? According to Tony Stafford, director of the Agriculture Business Development Division within the State Department of Agriculture:
[…] too many young people are leaving the farm. He hopes the enhancement of the program will lure more Missourians to return to farming.
Au contraire; it is more likely that not enough young people are leaving the farm. There is nothing intrinsically important about farms. Farms are valuable because they do one thing: produce food. If we can produce more food with fewer farmers, great! Then people — the most important resource we have — are freed to work on something else of value.
Throughout the 20th century, U.S. farm output has increased despite the fact that fewer people have chosen to be farmers. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas:
Since 1948, agricultural production has doubled, while total input use, including labor, land and machinery, declined slightly. […] Between 1948 and 1996, agricultural labor productivity increased more than eightfold. The number of people fed by one farmer has jumped from 15 in 1950 to 128 in 1995, including 34 outside the United States.
Because production doubled and productivity increased by a factor of eight, fewer people are working in agriculture despite this doubling of production.
In A.D. 1000, almost everyone was a farmer. Now, almost no one farms in industrialized nations. A quick comparison of living conditions seems to favor present times. You might object that the driving factor here is technology, not the amount of farmers we have. But you would be missing my point: The fewer people we have farming, the more people we have working on other things, like technological advances.
Farm subsidies such as the Beginning Farmer Loan Program only serve to slow down the tremendous gains in prosperity we have been achieving during the past couple of centuries. And for what? According to Stafford, to get a few Missourians back on the farm. Why, exactly, do we want them on the farm again?