Farmers comprised 90% of the U.S. labor force during the opening decades of our country. Today, less than 2% of our workforce farm for a living. In the past, many young men and women yearned to leave the life of the farm, to break the long chain of farming ancestry, in order to pursue other professional ambitions. The massive industrialization of farming over the last two centuries has made such an exodus possible, for the first time in human history, and we are all intimate beneficiaries of this ‘freeing up’ of the workforce.
But we are now seeing a backflow against this overwhelming tide. For example, over the past 18 years, the numbers of U.S. farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs have increased nearly five-fold and over 25-fold, respectively; together, they constitute one of the fastest growing sectors in the food industry. At Wesleyan, our student-run farm continues to produce high-quality, wholesome food for the campus and community. A mere five years ago, nuanced topics such as industrialized organic farming were brand new to most students in my Introduction to Environmental Studies course. Now, first-year students regularly school me on the latest of all-things food. Food-related courses are now consistently over-subscribed.
Food production is at the heart of many environmental issues. The process of making our food in the U.S. consumes 80% of our water and 20% of our petroleum budgets. U.S. agricultural fields and pastures are eroding on average at 28 times the natural rate, and humans presently harvest 40% of all continental photosynthesis. Humans currently manufacture as much bio-available nitrogen (through fossil fuel combustion) as is made naturally, and this excess nitrogen contributes to oxygen dead zones in downstream rivers and bays. These are all big, first-order environmental problems. But there is deep-seated hunger among students to dig into these topics, and this extends to getting their hands dirty. I believe this is not only because students want to solve problems (this desire is unceasing!), but because of a riptide tug towards their farming past. Procuring food is in all of our genes.
Dana Royer is an Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Wesleyan University.