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Farming in the Year 2050

Farming in the year 2050[1] 

John Ikerd[2] 

 I would like to take you on an imaginary trip through time to the year 2050, forty years into the future. It may help to think about how much the world has changed in the last forty years, say since 1970, to get some sense of how much it will change in the future. The war in Viet Nam was still raging and Richard Nixon, our new President, had just ordered an invasion of Cambodia. The civil rights movement was still in full swing. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in 1968 leading to passage of the first major civil rights legislation later that year, but the struggle for equal opportunity was still ahead. The first Earth Day, in April 1970, had given new momentum to the environmental movement, leading to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency later that year.  For those who are not old enough to remember 1970 just think back to when you were ten years old to get some idea of the changes likely between now and 2050. With the challenges confronting society today, the world is almost certain to change even more by the year 2050 than it has changed since 1970.  In the year 2050, people who are old enough to remember 2009 will realize they are living in a world that is fundamentally different from today In the year 2050, the industrial model of economic development is now a relic of a past. During the 1970s, Americans discovered that protecting the environment and bringing disenfranchised people into the economic and political mainstream had economic costs. Rather than bear those costs, they retreated from reality during the 1980s. Most Americans remained in a state of denial until the early 2000s, when another round of costly military conflicts, fossil energy depletion, global climate change, growing social and economic inequity, and the second Great Depression awakened them to reality. In the early 2000s, they grudgingly began to accept the fact that a society driven by individual, economic self-interest was simply not sustainable.  Now in 2050, global society is finally emerging from a period of social and economic transformation that has changed virtually every aspect of human life. People are still trying to resolve the political and military conflicts that arose over access to dwindling stocks of fossil energy and other natural resources. The continuing economic and social inequities opened wounds that will take centuries to heal. An all out global economic war has been averted, at least thus far. The disparity between the rich and poor both within and between nations of the world is a continuing problem for humanity, but it least it has become a global priority.  Cheap fossil energy is but a distant memory and anything that depends on it – including industrial agriculture – is functionally obsolete. Global climate change is widely accepted as an everyday reality and anything that contributes to it – including industrial agriculture – is both unethical and unlawful. People are still suffering the consequences of trying to make drastic adjustments in lifestyles that would have been far easier if begun decades earlier. Trust in free-markets as the ultimate arbiter of all value – so popular during the late twentieth-century – is now recognized as a dangerous economic cult that nearly destroyed the future of humanity. People are no longer so gullible as to believe that free markets can somehow transform the “greatest greed” into the “greatest good.” Even so, it will still take decades to recover from the ecological and social consequences of decades of economic exploitation. The systems of farming and food production developed during the late 1900s are now recognized as major contributors to all of these problems. By the early 2000s, the industrial food system accounted for nearly 20% of all fossil energy used in the United States and required more than ten kcals of fossil energy for each kcal of food energy it produced,[1] with farms using about one-third of the food system total. U.S. agriculture accounted for more than 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. – even more than transportation.[2] With respect to economic inequity, farm laborers and food industry workers were among the lowest paid workers in the U.S. and most received few if any additional benefits. Many lacked access to health care, even though they worked under conditions that were among the most dangerous of professions. Many farmers had become dependent on government subsidies to survive financially from one crop year to the next. Most of the livestock in the U.S. were produced under corporate contracts that made farmers little more than serfs on their own land. At the consumer level, diet related illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease were most prevalent among lower income consumers. Cheap food simply wasn’t worth the cost. Scientific studies documenting the nutrient deficiency of industrial foods were just beginning to explain the apparent paradox that many poor people were “over-fed but under-nourished.”[3] During the early 2000s, growing concerns about food security finally ignited an explosion of public concern about the long run sustainability of agriculture. Fossil energy depletion, global climate change, and economic and social inequities were creating a growing sense of food insecurity. People were beginning to realize that no individual, community, or nation that depends on the global economy for their basic food needs can ever be food secure.  The global food crises of the early 2000s had proven that markets provide food in relation to peoples’ ability to buy, not in relation to their needs. In a market driven food economy, the poor must vote with dollars, and lacking enough dollars, the poor will always go hungry. If the poor become so desperate they resort to violence, the economy collapses, and even the wealth go hungry.  Economic value is individualistic in nature, so the economy puts the wants of individuals ahead of the needs of society. Economics also places a premium on the present relative to the future. Economic value, being individualistic, must be expected to accrue at least during the lifetime of the individual decision maker – the closer in time to the present, the higher the economic value. Those of future generations cannot express their food needs and preferences in today’s marketplace. Thus, markets will not ensure the food security of society or the sustainability of humanity.  Best-selling books of the early 2000s, particularly Fast Food Nation[4] and Omnivore’s Dilemma,[5] awakened mainstream society to the dramatic changes in the ways their foods were being produced, processed, distributed, and marketed.  The End of Food[6] and America’s Food[7] covered virtually all aspects of the industrial food systems of those times. Video documentaries such as Future of Food,[8] Broken Limbs,[9] and Fresh; The Movie[10] provided gripping images negative ecological and social impacts of industrial agriculture and put faces on the new American farmers. These books and documentaries all told the same basic story: the industrial food system of the late twentieth-century was simply not sustainable. The fundamental question confronting society at the time was whether an alternative food system could be developed to address growing ecological, social, and economic concerns. Fortunately, the answer was yes! Thousands of farmers all across America and around the world were already developing the new paradigm for a sustainable agriculture.  Some labeled themselves organic, biodynamic, ecological, natural, holistic, practical, innovative, and others chose no label at all; but they were all pursuing the same basic purpose.  They were creating an agriculture that was capable of meeting the real needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future. They were creating systems of farming that could maintain their productivity and usefulness to society indefinitely – a permanent agriculture. An important statistical turning point came in 2007, when the USDA Census of Agriculture indicated a 4% increase in the number of farms in the U.S. between 2002 and 2007. After falling for several decades, the trend in farm numbers between 1992 and 2002 had been virtually flat. With the modest 4% increase, many questioned whether this was actually a reversal in a long term toward fewer farms and farmers, and if so, whether it signaled a fundamental change in U.S. agriculture. The 2007 census data did little to answer these questions.  The largest increase in farm numbers, by far, was for farms with annual sales less than $10,000. Many of these were hobby farmers – rural residents who sold a few of the things they enjoyed producing. The USDA census definition of a farm was pretty broad and included a lot of farms that most people did not view as a serious farming operation. Many of the new farms fell in this category. They were people who had decides that rural places could be very desirable places to live. The census also showed significant increases in farms with annual sales of more than $250,000. In fact, the largest percentage increases were for operations with sales over $1,000,000. Obviously, most of the increases in these larger operations resulted from smaller farms growing into larger farms. It wasn’t easy to start a new large farming operation even in those days. So, big farmers were still getting bigger in the early 2000s.  The new farms that started out large were mostly large-scale confinement animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, where corporate contractors arranged for access to startup capital. Rapid growth in hog and dairy CAFOs probably helped boost annual average sales of new farms to $73,000, even though 70% of new farmers reported sales of less than $10,000. About 32% of new farmers reported farming as their principle occupation – most likely corporate contract production. So, corporate agriculture was still going strong in 2007. Farms with annual sales between $10,000 and $250,000 had continued to decline in numbers. This had become known as the “disappearing middle” of American agriculture. Many of these small and mid-sized farms made a significant contribution to the economic well-being of farm families, even if they were not full-time family farms. In fact, farms with less than $250,000 in sales made up well over 50% of all farmers who considered farming to be their “primary occupation,” even though they accounted for less than 20% of total sales of farm products. People at that time were just beginning to relearn the fact that farming had never been only about producing commodities for export or energy, or even producing food for American consumers. Farming has always been about providing a desirable quality of life for farm families, which in most cases required a significant contribution to family income. There had always been many legitimate motives for farming other than profit, but the economic bottom line was always relevant. The disappearing middle of American agriculture in the early 2000s reflected disappearing economic opportunities for America’s farm families.  As farming operations grew larger, the opportunities for farmers inevitably grew fewer. There is a physical limit to how much people can eat and will buy. Farms could only get bigger if there were fewer of them. Many farmers were never going to become larger farmers, no matter how smart they managed or hard they worked. There was nothing in the 2007 Census of Agriculture to indicate a change in this historic reality.  The USDA census figures didn’t tell the whole story. All the new farms were not residential/lifestyle farms, retirement farms, or limited-resource farms, and they were not large farms. Many of those already on small and mid-sized farms didn’t want bigger farms; they wanted better farms – and their numbers were growing. Many of the new farms were small and mid-sized, and these new farmers were expected to provide a desirable quality of life and an acceptable level of income for themselves or their families. These were the new American farms of the twenty-first century. The growing numbers of sustainable farmers were among the new farmers in the 2007 Census of Agriculture. Even though they were not identified as in the census, the growth in their numbers could be seen at the hundreds of sustainable farming conferences and similar events that were being held each year all across the continent. They could be found at any of the nation’s 4,700-plus farmers markets at the time or the new markets that continued to spring up each new season.  These new farmers operated at least 12,500 community supported agriculture organizations (CSAs) where their members shared in their bounty of locally grown foods. The new American farmers were different from conventional farmers – as were their customers. Not only did they look different, they thought differently, and they had a different vision for the future of American agriculture. A significant number of the new farmers were immigrants, but the vast majority was native born. Many were young people who had no experience or previous connection to farming. Most were well educated, but still willing to work hard for little pay in on-farm internship programs to learn the art, science, and practice of real farming. What they lacked in experience they more than made up for in energy, enthusiasm, and commitment. Others were retired couples, many still in their 50s; who may or may not have grown up on a farm. They had saved enough money during successful careers for at least a down payment on a small farm. They decided to spend their “retirement” doing something they always wanted to do. Some found their off-farm experience very useful in the business aspects of farming but had to learn the rest of farming from scratch, mostly from other small farmers.A few of the new farmers had conventional farming backgrounds. Some eventually came to the conclusion that the industrial paradigm of agriculture wasn’t working, so they changed paradigms in mid-career. Others grew up on conventional farms but decided that farming must change and they are going to help change it. Some of these basic characteristics were evident in the 2007 census. The new farmers were more likely to be female than were existing farmers. They were also more racially diverse, including African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans. The new farmers included people of all ages but on average were younger than existing farmers.  Perhaps most significant at the time, a large number of very bright young people on college campuses all across the country had become interested in careers in sustainable agriculture – including farming, marketing, finance, and policy. Some had a background in agriculture and others didn’t, but they understood the importance of agriculture to the future and they wanted to be a part of it. These were the people who eventually created a new sustainable food system to complement the new sustainable agriculture.  After decades of continued growth, the sustainable agriculture movement exploded with the local foods movement of the early 2000s. Celebrity farmers, such as Joel Salatin[11] (Polyface Farms, Inc.) of Swope, VA and Will Allen[12] (Growing Power Inc.) of Milwaukee, WI helped other farmers to see the potential of sustainable farming in both rural and urban areas. The local food movement was actually a continuation of the earlier natural and organic food movements, but it proved to have far more potential for transforming the entire food system. The connections between healthy farms, healthy foods, healthy communities, and healthy local economies were all far clearer for local foods than for natural or organic. This sense of connectedness gave the movement a renewed sense of integrity. People understood that buying food from local farms was good for the local economy. They understood that farmers markets, CSAs, and local foods in local restaurants, food markets, and public institutions help build stronger relationships within communities. These connections were just as important in maintaining the integrity of natural and organic foods, but were less clear. The greatest challenge for the local food movement was to maintain this sense of connectedness to each other and to the earth as it grew to meet the food needs of society. If it had lost its social and ecological integrity in its quest for economic viability, it would have lost its sustainability.  Many people at the time underestimated the potential of the local food movement because they associated local foods with farmers markets and CSAs, both of which had been doubling in numbers every few years. The number of home vegetable gardens also exploded after the sharp run up in food prices during 2008 – including a new home garden at the White House in 2009. While farmers markets, CSAs, and home gardens continued to be important sources of food, as well as inspiration for new farmers, the local foods movement was increasingly defined by the growing number of discriminating restaurants, supermarkets, and other retail food markets who were committed to sourcing as much food as possible from local growers. The early pioneers of local foods were many but it’s perhaps worthwhile to mention a few. Alice Waters, a restaurateur, was an “American pioneer of a culinary philosophy that maintains that cooking should be based on the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients that are produced sustainably and locally.”[13]   Jesse Z. Cool,[14] with restaurants in Palo Alto, CA, was also an ardent advocate for local, sustainable, organic food production and of local farmers, whom she warmly called “her heroes.” White Dog Café,[15] in Philadelphia, PA, was operated by Judy Wicks, by adhering to a four-part mission that included serving their customers, serving their community, serving each other, and serving the earth. These discriminating restaurateurs set a new standard eating that eventually transformed all away-from-home eating experiences.  New Seasons Market[16]  became one of the fastest growing food market chains in Portland, OR, opening its eleventh store in 2009. Virtually every item in their stores was labeled with respect to not just the country of origin but the “farm of origin.” They promoted local-grown products and had long-term commitments with hundreds of local and regional farmers. Hen House Markets[17]was a 13-store in Kansas City, operated with a similar philosophy. They collaborated with Good Natured Family Farms, [18] an alliance that included 150 farmers in 2009, to provide locally and regionally grown foods to their customers. These food retailing pioneers eventually transformed the whole culture of food retailing. In addition to retail food markets, local foods were making inroads into the institutional food markets, including schools, colleges, and hospitals. By 2009, more than 2,000 farm-to-school programs had been initiated in 41 states, with concerned parents encouraging and coercing public school administrators to buy as much food as possible from local farmers.[19] Similar inroads were being made into college food services.[20] Local foods were also growing in popularity among hospitals with increasing awareness of the links between diet and health problems.[21] The sustainable agriculture movement exploded when mid-sized farmers discovered they also could take advantage of the more profitable local niche markets, if they were willing to change their ways of thinking. The problem wasn’t that the local foods markets were too small; the challenge was they were food markets rather than commodity markets. Until then, most mid-sized farmers had produced crops and livestock and left it to processors and retailers to turn their commodities into food.  Farmers who produced foods targeted their crop and livestock production for specific groups of consumers who had tastes and preferences different from those of mainstream food consumers. These consumers were looking for food that was good, clean, and fair, to paraphrase the Slow Food Movement,[22] not food that is just quick, convenient, and cheap. For mid-sized farmers to take advantage of the profitable local market niches, they had to learn to produce food for people rather than feed for animals or raw materials for processors. The discriminating consumers who made up the local food movement wanted something fundamentally different from the food produced by the industrial food system and they were willing to pay for it. They were not a bunch of idealistic, uninformed yuppies willing to pay ridiculously high prices for anything with a natural, organic, or local label. They were looking for food with integrity and would only buy food from farmers who had integrity. The transition to sustainable farming was a mental challenge for most conventional farmers – for some it was too much to overcome. Virtually all of the imagination and creativity involved in conventional agriculture at the time was embodied in the seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, feeds, medications, and specialized equipment. The imagination and creativity involved in turning farm commodities into food obviously didn’t take place on the farm. The farmer contributed only the unskilled labor required to monitor a CAFO, drive a tractor, or operate largely automated equipment. That’s why it took such a big conventional farm to make a living. Many mid-sized farmers eventually concluded that if they wanted to make a living farming, they were going to have to also do more thinking – and more caring. Increasing numbers of supermarkets, restaurants, schools, and hospitals were able rely of locally-grown foods, once more mid-sized farmers had learned to produce dependable quantities of high-quality food. More people were then able to find affordable foods that were natural, organic, pesticide free, hormone free, antibiotic free, GMO free – foods fundamentally different from industrial foods. Most people continued to show a strong preference for foods that were grown locally or at least regionally – by people they could get to know and trust. Their trust in their farmers was their assurance of ecological and social integrity in their foods.  The small farmers who had supplied local markets up to that time were simply not able to meet the growing demand of high-volume local markets. Many successful small farmers were not interested in marketing beyond their farmers markets, CSAs, or on-farm sales. They liked the person-to-person contact with their customers. In addition, their ability to connect personally with their customer was the primary basis for their continuing profitability. For them, moving into higher-volume markets would have reduced their profits as well as their quality of life. They were successful as small farmers and had no reason to grow larger. Other small farmers who wanted to expand became ideal collaborators with mid-sized farmers in accessing high-value food markets. The mid-sized farmers supplied the necessary product volume while smaller farmers added diversity to the total product line and added their knowledge of sustainable production and of high-value, local markets. The local niche markets were small at the time only because there were not enough small-to-mid-sized farmers working together to produce sufficient quantities of high-quality food with ecological and social integrity to meet the large and growing demand. The ultimate model for the food system of 2050 evolved from the multi-farm CSAs of the early 2000s. Organizations such as Grown Locally,[23] Idaho’s Bounty,[24] and the Oklahoma Food Cooperative[25] were offering local customers a variety of vegetables, fruits, meats, eggs, cheese, baked goods, flowers, and herbs produced by local farmers. Many items were available as CSA shares, standing orders, or for week-by-week purchase. Customers had an option of on-farm pick-up, local delivery points, or delivery to the door for an added charge. Their websites allowed producers to post what they had available each week, ensuring that products sold were available for delivery and allowing customers to place or revise their orders on the website.  By 2009, Riverford Organics in the United Kingdom, a multi-farm CSA cooperative had 100,000 members and provided nearly 50,000 customers each week with fresh local foods – including meat, milk, and eggs.[26] Their website stated, “The original Riverford box scheme began supplying 30 friends from the farm in Devon… the alliance is now delivering thousands of boxes a week to homes across the country – while maintaining the local connection and keeping the food miles down.[27] The local food movement simply exploded all across America and around the world. A group of innovative agripreneurs had created the template for a new national and global network of community-based food systems.  Today, in 2050, virtually everyone in the United States has access to the Internet. Community-based food associations all across the country operate local assembly and distribution systems to pick up products from local farms, assemble customers’ orders, and deliver fresh produce to local customers. Commercial retail delivery networks – pioneered by UPS and Fed-Ex – were already making daily deliveries into most neighborhoods in the early 2000s and are now the most common means of delivering fresh foods to American households.  Rising fuel prices has made routine trips to shopping centers and supermarkets economically impractical and has relegated most retail shopping, including food shopping, to the internet. Most foods are now produced by local farmers and delivered into nearby homes at a fraction of the energy use and economic cost of earlier times. Local food associations help maintain personal connections between farmers and their customers through local food events, scheduled farm visits, and special events pioneered in earlier times by “dinners at the farm.”[28]  With the integrity of the system ensured through local connections and commitments, relationships of trust have been established among local food networks, allowing products to be shared among local and regional “food-sheds,” and even globally, while maintaining ecological or social integrity. The old mainstream food system, with its supermarkets and super centers, has been relegated to a minor role of providing highly-processed, non-perishable, bulk-food items. Earlier in this century, many people were skeptical as to whether sustainable farmers could produce enough food to meet the needs of a growing population. Fortunately, they learned that sustainable farmers could produce just as much and even more per acre with natural, organic, and other sustainable systems of production; it just required more knowledgeable, thoughtful, creative, caring farmers. Sustainable farming systems relied less on capital and fossil energy so they needed to rely more on management and labor, which meant smaller, more intensively managed farms, and more farmers. So now, we just have many more, smaller farms.   Others were skeptical as to whether they could possibly change the industrial, global food system. The industry was global in scope and very politically and economically powerful. However, public priorities shifted from food that is quick, convenient to food that is good, clean, and fair, the economic incentives shifted from economic exploitation to ecological, social, and economic sustainability. The growing ecological, social, and economic challenges of the early 2000s triggered a reversal of a 50-year trend toward industrialization of the American food system. The natural, organic, and local food movements reflected a growing demand for fundamental change in the way food was produced, processed, and distributed. The stage was then set for changes in the food system even more dramatic than those seen in the late 1900s, but in a fundamentally different direction. The sustainable food movement of the late 1900s continued until now it has become the new mainstream American food system of 2050 – and the change took place one consumer, one retailer, and one farmer at a time.  Before concluding, let’s return to reality, back to 2009. Perhaps this imaginary transition to sustainability sounds idealistic or overly optimistic, but it’s not. Our current food system is not sustainable. We do not have a choice; it has to change it. We simply cannot feed a growing global population with a fossil energy dependent food system in a world running out of fossil energy. We can’t continue to rely on an industrial food system of today without destroying the natural environment and degrading human health.  Change is not an option; it’s a necessity.  Furthermore, it has taken less than 50 years for the American food system to shift from non-industrial local food system to an industrial, global food system. In the late 1950s, construction on the interstate highway system had just begun and supermarkets and franchise restaurants were just beginning to catch on. By the 1960s, however, supermarket chains had replaced the local “mom and pop” grocers, by the 1970s, fast food franchises were “freeing housewives from their kitchens” and by the 1990s, industrial agribusinesses had replaced family farms as the nation's major food producers. By the early 2000s, the American food system was transformed from national to global. All of this happened during a period of little more than fifty years.  Equally important, the transformation happened one consumer, one retailer, and one farmer at a time. That’s the way change has always happened and always will – one person at a time. We should never underestimate the power of our food choices. The local food movement is part of the larger sustainable food movement, which is but a part of a much larger sustainability movement that permeates virtually every sector of the economy and segment of U.S. and global society. The movement is so diverse and dispersed, so local and grass roots, that it’s difficult to recognize it as a single social movement; thus its potential importance is grossly underestimated.  The sustainability movement represents a rejection of the economics of individual self-interest that has dominated global society for the past thirty years. It reflects a growing realization that happiness is not just a matter of individual economic well-being. Certainly, we are material beings and we need to meet our basic needs. That’s what the economy is about. But, we are also social beings and need positive relationships with other people within families and communities. We need sense of social equity and justice. That’s what our society is about. We are also ethical and moral beings and need a sense of rightness and goodness in our relationships with each other and with the earth to give purpose and meaning to our lives. That’s what stewardship is about. These things are what sustainability is about; balancing our economic, social, and ethical well-being; pursuing a more enlightened concept of self-interest, pursuing our individual happiness without diminishing opportunities for those of the future to do likewise. Farming in 2050 will be very different from today. Today’s local foods movement is not only transforming farming, it is also helping to shape a new and better future of humanity – one person at a time. One by one, by our individual food and farming choices, we are not only creating more farms, better farms, and smaller farms, we are also creating a new and better food system and a new and fundamentally better way of life. End Notes

[1] Prepared for presentation at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprise Conference, University of Florida, IFAS Extension, Orlando, FL, August 1-2, 2009.

[1] David and Marcia Pimentel, Food, Energy, and Society (Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado), 1996.

[2]Wikipedia, “greenhouse gas”, and “Climate Change and Agriculture,” and .

[3] For a list of peer review scientific studies documenting the health and nutritional benefits of natural foods, see The Organic Center, The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Scientific Finding About Organic Agriculture, 

[4] Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001).

[5] Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006).

[6] Paul Roberts, The End of Food (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2008).

[7] Harvey Blatt, America’s Food: What You Don’t Know About What You Eat (Boston: The MIT Press, 2008).

[8] The Future of Food

[9] Broken Limbs,

[10] Fresh the Movie

[11] Visit Polyface Farms Inc.

[12] Visit Growing Power,

[13] Visit Chez Panisse website,

[14] Visit the Jesse Z. Cool website, <>

[15] Visit the White Dog Café website, <>

[16] Visit the New Seasons Market website, <>

[17] Visit Hen House Markets website, <>

[18] Visit the Good Natured Family Farms website, <>

[19] Visit Farm to School website, <>

[20] Food Routes, Farm to College,

[21] Occidental College Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, <>

[22]Visit the Slow Foods International website,

[23] Visit the Grown Locally website at <>

[24] Visit the Idaho’s Bounty website at<>

[25] Visit the Oklahoma Food Cooperative website at<

[26] Visit the Riverford Organics website at,

[27] Riverford Franchise website,

[28] See “Dinners” at <>