I spent Saturday morning at the local 4H Livestock Judging Day with the three members of the youngest generation. Livestock judging day, as the name implies, is a time for the 4H members to learn how to judge a particular group of livestock based on conformation standards. This year, we had swine, rabbits, beef, goats and sheep – poultry and dairy were missing from the list. Although it was one of the biggest days we’ve ever had, only 150 kids showed up. This is from a community that has a population of well over 100,000 people.
While I’m thrilled that we had as many as we did, it’s very sad that so few children are learning basic agricultural skills. It should concern all of us, because our country has 28.5 million people living in it, yet less than 1 million are farmers. I haven’t been able to dig out the specific data about how many of those folks are ranchers. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 751,000 farmers and ranchers in the U.S. in 2008, which is less than the number of farmers we have today. (One number I found interesting was that in 2008, 24.4% of all farmers and ranchers were female.) But 40% of those “farms” are primarily residences rather than businesses and an additional 14% are retirement farms – again, not producing anything. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were only 3,340 “farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers” (whatever the heck those are) in the U.S. as of May 2011. The BLS notes that this group includes people who grow fish, own or run nurseries and manage timber tracts – none of whom I would call farmers. The data from the BLS, however, excludes 23 states, including such major agricultural producers as Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, North and South Dakota. You can see why I’m having trouble coming up with decent numbers…
So why am I throwing all these statistics at you? Because however many of them there are, they (and most consumers) rely on a fossil-fuel-heavy system to grow, fertilize, irrigate, process and transport the food to your local supermarket. What’s going to happen if that system is disrupted by peak oil, strikes, resource wars or the rising cost of fuel? And most of those farmers and ranchers are 55 or older. Who is going to replace them?
What we need in this country is a lot more people growing their own food or growing food on the local level for their own communities. Think about it for a minute – if you suddenly had to feed your family without access to a supermarket, could you do so? Do you have enough food on the pantry shelf and in the freezer to last until the growing season next spring? If you had to rely on local growers, what would you be eating? Think about those questions for a minute, and then do whatever you can to support your local 4H and any other group that’s trying to encourage kids to get into agriculture.
Your food supply could depend on them.