I can't help but get upset when i here of farmers bidding up land to $10,000+ dollars per acre. Why? Because every time land goes for that kind of money its one less opportunity for a young farmer to start farming (the average age of today's farmer is 60). My wife and I (and countless others) have been trying to find land around our area to buy for a number of years now, only to be disappointing time and time again. We know that land is artificially high and will come back to reality sooner or later and that conventional farming practices are not sustainable (or practical) at $10,000 per acre. Non conventional farming can be sustainable at that price but who can afford to start farming at the initial cost?
In years past farmers used to raise 5+ children and have a good life on an 80 acre farm, which was also completely sustainable. Now to hear of someone raising a family on 80 acres is almost unheard of, why? For several reasons but modern agriculture, I believe, is the biggest culprit. Modern agriculture has given us high land prices, poor quality food, and subsidies out the wazoo! Back before the synthetic chemicals, Frankenstein crops and animals, and confinement buildings a farm had to be small. If it wasn't small you couldn't handle all the work. In today's world you buy your seed no-till it into the ground, apply some synthetic fertilizer, call the herbicide guys and your done until harvest, where you sell the grain to someone you never meet and you sell by the volume, not by the quality. (maybe a little over simplified but the point is it doesn't take much time, and quality doesn't really matter).
In yesterdays world you had to work the ground (several times), then plant, then hoe multiple times, then cultivate multiple times and fertilize. That was just for the cash crop, you also had to cut hay, rake hay, bale the hay, and store the hay, This would be from the beginning of March till about mid June, after that was done you had to get started on the second cutting of hay about July and work never stopped till after the harvest, just before winter. Seem like a lot more work? Well it is, but that's not all of it, back then you couldn't make a living selling just the crops you had to maximize your profits, so you raise animals for meat or milk. These took anywhere from a couple hours a day to take care of to half the day depending upon what you were raising. Most farms also had multiple species to utilize all of the feed efficiently, the largest animals (usually the cows) ate the hay and grain, the hogs followed them and got their fill from what was left over, and the chickens would follow up behind them, a pretty efficient system, the end product was food on the table with plenty left over to sell, and fertilizer stored up in the barn ready for the next crop.
So how does today's Modern Ag mess this up? For one, the time, it takes so little time to raise these crops that you need more land or another job to fill the void. According to OSU the average conventional farm needs roughly 500 acres to support a family ($300,000 gross income) and has to grow 5-7% each year just to sustain a $50,000 income. The problem is where do you find 500 acres and how could you buy that much land? Almost every farmer i know has another full time job. The younger generation of people are there and the desire to farm exists. but most can't afford to make the leap.
Modern Ag is giving us more Corporate Ag as well. Corporate farms essentially hire out the farmer to manage their herd of animals and equipment reducing the farmer to a hired hand while also trying to buy up any chunk of land within a reasonable distance to the farm, Running the price of land up to unsustainable prices. Modern Ag has driven the grain and meat prices down to as low as they can be and still turn a miniscule profit, the farmer does 90% of the work and has no guarantee of their profit. This is where subsidies come in, Farm subsidies in our little community of 1000 people was 5.5 million dollars since 1995, that is ONLY direct payments (check the farmer receives in the mail), this does not include the crop insurance subsidies or hidden subsidies that are in farm bills, such as food stamps. So who really benefits from all the subsidies? Farmers do a little bit but Corporations that use the grain and livestock are the big winners, think about it, when you buy a loaf of bread or a box of cereal what is the bulk of the content... the grain that the farmer grew. So obviously the bulk of the price should be that as well right? Wrong! The actual cost of the grain in cereal is only 2% of the purchase price. The goal of Modern agriculture is not sustainability, or for the welfare of the family farm or the consumer, the goal is cheaper, faster, and more profits.
So will the family farm survive the seemingly never ending onslaught of Modern Ag? I believe the family farm is the only way to turn the tide. The most efficient from of agriculture is the small family farm that cares more about the quality of life for their family and the animals they raise than the profits that can be obtained by them... oh and btw profits from a small family farm now far exceed that of any modern agriculture system. Consumers have waken up from the coma of cheap food and now have demanded quality food, farmer direct, so the profits can go strait to the farm and support quality of life for the animals and the land and people around them. All that's needed is a free website and a phone to connect with the consumer... no slick salesmen here ;) The demand is out of this world and growing, so the only way for the demand to be met is the resurgence of the small family farm that can start out on as little as 1 acre and keep expanding to the point that its possible to buy 20 or more acres and slowly phasing out massive mono-cultures and giving more fertility to the soil, more profits to the farmer, and more peace of mind to the consumer while creating fun good paying jobs for a weak job market.