A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape

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What is a chapter on farming doing in a book about the industrial landscape? Most of us put agriculture in a different mental category from, say, mining or manufacturing. But farming is also an industry. Indeed, it was the first industry, and it remains in many ways the most essential. If we can’t eat, we can’t do much of anything else. And, as industries go, agriculture is a highly developed and mechanized one—at least in the highly developed and mechanized parts of the world.

Agriculture can also claim a place in this book because it is the industry that has the largest-scale impact on the landscape. Farming takes up more space than anything else people do on the planet, by a wide margin. Farmers and ranchers own fully half the land area of the United States, and they also use and shape large tracts of publicly owned land. When you look down on the countryside from an airplane window, agriculture almost always marks the clearest and most extensive sign of human presence.

Where Have All the Farmers Gone?

When America was young, we were a nation of farmers. In the years before 1800, at least 90 percent of the people made their living from the soil. A century later, 40 percent of the population was still farming. But the 2000 census found only 1 percent of Americans living on farms. This exodus from agriculture has to be counted as one of the most stupendous turning points in all of human history. For several thousand years, just about everybody was a farmer; now, all of a sudden, almost nobody is. The change overtook us within just a few generations.

What allowed so many people to leave the farm—or compelled them to leave—was a phenomenal spurt in agricultural productivity. In the old days, it was either grow your own or starve. On average, it took the labor of nine farmers to feed and clothe 10 people—a ratio that imposed a pretty stringent limit on how many of us could run away to be Young Urban Professionals. Today, a tiny fraction of the population grows enough for all of us. More than enough: in most years the United States has huge surpluses of food to ship overseas.

This transformation of modern agriculture sounds like a rip-roaring success story—and it is. Feast is better than famine; no one would trade the present bounty for the melancholy vision of Thomas Malthus, who predicted two centuries ago that population would inevitably outrun the food supply. And yet the miracle of agricultural technology has had costs too. Farmers themselves have paid the steepest price: their own efficiency has put many of them right out of business. And the dislocations extend far beyond the midwestern corn belt. Because of those exported surpluses, farmers in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are thrown into direct competition with well-capitalized — and sometimes subsidized — American agribusiness.

Viewed at the scale of continents and centuries, the depopulation of rural America seems to be a consequence of implacable economic forces. Seen at closer range, however, vast demographic trends always seem to resolve themselves into a family gathered at the kitchen table to deal with a crisis. As times get hard, the farm squeaks by on grit and goodwill for a few years. Then some last reversal—bad weather, falling prices, rising interest rates—brings the gavel down. We long to comfort them with the thought that they’ll find better lives elsewhere, or their children will. I’ve heard it said that both the cause and the effect of civilization is getting people off the farm and into the city. But I wouldn’t say it to a family whose land has just been sold at auction.

Ironically, there are also places in the United States where agriculture faces exactly the opposite challenge. As cities grow—swelled in part by fleeing farmers!—the suburbs encroach on surrounding rural land. Rising real estate values and taxes drive the farmers out. (But it’s pleasanter to leave with a fat check from a developer than with a bankruptcy settlement.)

In recent years the population exchanges between city and country have gotten even more complicated. Former farmers don’t necessarily have to move to the city to find a job; the job may come to them. It’s not unusual nowadays for large factories and other kinds of industrial establishments to be built in small towns or out in open rural terrain. Even in places where farms continue to thrive, most people earn their living in other ways. In Iowa the landscape is dominated by farming, and on the radio you’ll hear corn and hog prices, but 95 percent of the people of Iowa are not farmers.

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