According to recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than one million acres of farmland have been lost since 2014, largely due to the closure of more than 18,000 small farms.
As Jules Suzdaltsev reports in today's DNews special, these figures represent a troubling trend for U.S. food production.
The farming industry in the U.S. has changed rather radically in recent decades. Trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement have removed most taxes on goods coming into the U.S. from Canada and Mexico. This has resulted in cheaper food on supermarket shelves, which is good. Compared to 20 years ago, Americans eat twice as much fruit and three times as many vegetables grown just outside the country.
But the relentless drive for market efficiency has come at a price. A growing number of critics contend that the U.S. is now overly reliant on foreign sources of food. China, on the other hand, has invested billions of dollars into domestic agricultural development. By some estimates, the number of Chinese farmers is nearly equal to the entire population of the United States.
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Meanwhile, the U.S. farming industry is having serious trouble attracting young people. The USDA has reported that it expects to see 20,000 fewer university graduates -- in areas like agriculture and the environment -- than the industry needs over the next five years.
"Only six percent of our farmers in the U.S. are under the age of 35," says Sophie Ackoff, the national field director for the National Young Farmers Coalition, a grassroots network of young farmers. "Young people who are starting to farm are facing huge obstacles, like accessing affordable farmland, accessing credit and capital that they need to succeed."
The good news is that, on both the federal and state level, government officials are taking action to attract young farmers -- and keep the current rate of domestic food production stable. Some states have started offering student loan forgiveness to new farmers, or benefit programs that reward entrepreneurial projects.
"Farmers don't see themselves necessarily as public servants; they want to be recognized as entrepreneurs," Ackoff says. "But we don't see this as mutually exclusive. We believe farmers can produce goods for their community, steward the land, and feed their communities, and at the same time be profitable businesses."
Check out Jules' report for more details, or click on over to Seeker Stories for an in-depth look at the new generation of American farmers.
-- Glenn McDonald
The Economist: Daily Chart: Thought for Food
The Hill: We Can't Keep Losing Farmland and Agricultural Students
Feeding America: Hunger Facts & Poverty Statistics