When President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, his proclamation spoke of “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” The distractions of a civil war, he added, “have not arrested the plow.”
Neither has time. If anything, it has spurred the plow to do more work than Honest Abe could have imagined possible, even with many fewer plowers.
In President Lincoln’s day, roughly half of all Americans lived and worked on farms. Today, however, farmers make up just a tiny fraction of our workforce with each U.S. farmer producing enough to feed another 155 people.
This is a triumph of efficiency—and as we prepare to celebrate this year’s holiday with family and friends, we should give thanks for the amazing productivity of our farms and the abundant food they produce. At the same time, we should recognize that our incredible success has caused many of us to take our bounty for granted, posing unique challenges that would have been incomprehensible just a generation or two ago.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that almost 320 million people live in the United States right now. Yet only 2 percent reside on farms. Less than 1 percent claim farming as a job, and less than half a percent call farming their principal occupation.
In other words, if you gather 200 Americans at random, only one of them will be a full-time farmer. The number of people who play the farming-simulation game Farmville is larger than the number of people who actually farm in the United States.
Despite this, our farmers produce a mind-boggling bounty. Earlier this year, we harvested America’s largest corn crop ever. We export huge amounts of it overseas, and inexpensive food still overflows from the shelves of our grocery stories.
This is an incredible feat, the result of hard work and technological innovation. Almost everything about farming is better than it was for our ancestors, from our equipment to our seeds. We’re growing more food on less land than ever before.
I’ve farmed my whole life and can’t imagine wanting to do something else for a living. And yet the farming life isn’t for everyone—and it’s good that so many people can pursue other vocations. Fewer people forced into farming out of necessity means more people moving into medicine, teaching, and computer programming by choice.
Lincoln would have appreciated this social and economic development. He grew up on a farm but became determined to pursue a different career. The rest, as they say, is history.
Yet there’s a downside to this positive trend: Ordinary people know less about farming and food production than ever before, making us more vulnerable to rumors, fads, and disinformation. Practices ranging from the use of crop-protection tools to the production of finely textured beef arouse bogus controversies, especially when stoked by people who refuse to understand science or agriculture.
Some have ideological agendas and others want to boost television ratings—but whatever their motives, they have an unprecedented opportunity to exploit agricultural illiteracy.
Their mischief can lead to bad public policies. Earlier this month, for instance, voters in Colorado and Oregon considered ballot initiatives to require warning labels on food with genetically modified ingredients. Coloradoans wisely rejected the idea by a two-to-one margin, but Oregonians were almost evenly split—a tiny majority opposed the labels, but a recount is underway.
If more people farmed, more voters would know the value of agricultural biotechnology from firsthand experience—and the campaigns against it would be properly seen as a fringe movement.
I don’t want to go back to the way things were in the 19th century. I prefer tractors to plows. Yet sometimes I wish more people knew today what people knew back then.
So this Thanksgiving, I’ll give thanks for living in a country where the farmers produce so much food that most people don’t have to worry about food production—but also hope that in the year ahead, we’ll all gain a better understanding of what farmers do and why our food is safe and healthy.
Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa. Bill volunteers as a board member and serves as Chairman for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).