Proportion of population that works in agriculture (1000 - today)

Proportion of population that works in agriculture (1000 - today)

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I wonder what was the proportion of people that worked in agriculture (growing food and raising livestock, not processing food in a factory plant) throughout the past centuries in Europe and also, to compare, in North America.

I imagine that it didn't change much throughout the Dark ages and decreased suddenly as industrial production took over, so I'm especially interested in statistics at that period of time.

The answer to this question would vary quite a bit country, e.g. looking at the second source below, a study has estimated that in 1500, the figure was about 55% in the Netherlands, but 75% in Poland and France, so the scope you've mentioned is very broad.

However, I did find a couple of sources: first off, the World bank has some data on fairly recent times, e.g. for the US from 1980 to 2010. In this source, it would probably be most interesting to look at rapidly developing countries such as India, Malaysia, or even China, although the Chinese figures seem quite odd, with a drop from 44.1% in 2002 to 4.4% in 2003 almost certainly signifying a major change in what was being measured, or outright fraud in one or both figures.

I also found a perhaps more user-friendly overview of some different studies at There are graphs at least for a sample of European countries from 1300-1400 onwards, and for the US from 1800-2000.

Industrial Agriculture and Small-scale Farming

Even today, agriculture is an important source of income and the world’s largest business. One-third of the economically active population obtains its livelihood from agriculture. In Asia and Africa, millions of small-scale and subsistence farmers, pastoralists, fishermen and indigenous peoples produce most of the food consumed worldwide, in most cases on very small plots of land. Over the past decades, agricultural policy and international institutions, as well as private and public agricultural research have often considered small-scale and subsistence farmers as backward “phase-out models” of a pre-industrial form of production. For more than 50 years, “grow or die” has been both the capitalist and socialist principle for progress, with just a few exceptions. The widely held belief was that only large economic units were capable of achieving increases in productivity on a competitive basis through modern and rationalized cultivation methods, mainly with chemical inputs and the use of machinery. A global increase in productivity was considered necessary to feed a rapidly growing world population. "Industrial Agriculture: Form of agriculture that is capital-intensive, substituting machinery and purchased inputs for human and animal labour." (Global, p. 563-564)


Inventions during the early decades of the 19th century were aimed at automation and preservation.

  • 1800–1830—The era of turnpike building (toll roads) improved communication and commerce between settlements
  • 1800—Total population: 5,308,483
  • 1803—Louisiana Purchase
  • 1805–1815—Cotton began to replace tobacco as the chief southern cash crop
  • 1807—Robert Fulton demonstrated the practicability of steamboats
  • 1810—Total population: 7,239,881
  • 1810–1815—Demand for Merino sheep sweeps the country
  • 1810–1830—Transfer of manufactures from the farm and home to the shop and factory was greatly accelerated
  • 1815–1820—Steamboats became important in western trade
  • 1815–1825—Competition with western farm areas began to force New England farmers out of wheat and meat production and into dairying, trucking, and, later, tobacco production
  • 1815–1830—Cotton became the most important cash crop in the Old South
  • 1819— Jethro Wood patented an iron plow with interchangeable parts
  • 1819—Florida and other land acquired through the treaty with Spain
  • 1819– 1925—U.S. food canning industry established
  • 1820—Total population: 9,638,453
  • 1820—Land Law of 1820 allowed purchasers to buy as little as 80 acres of public land for a minimum price of $1.25 an acre credit system abolished
  • 1825—Erie Canal finished
  • 1825–1840—Era of canal building


Agricultural development is one of the most powerful tools to end extreme poverty, boost shared prosperity and feed a projected 9.7 billion people by 2050. Growth in the agriculture sector is two to four times more effective in raising incomes among the poorest compared to other sectors. Analyses in 2016 found that 65 percent of poor working adults made a living through agriculture.

Agriculture is also crucial to economic growth: in 2018, it accounted for 4 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) and in some developing countries, it can account for more than 25% of GDP.

But agriculture-driven growth, poverty reduction, and food security are at risk: Climate change could cut crop yields, especially in the world’s most food-insecure regions. Agriculture, forestry and land use change are responsible for about 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Mitigation in the agriculture sector is part of the solution to climate change.

The current food system also threatens the health of people and the planet: agriculture accounts for 70 percent of water use and generates unsustainable levels of pollution and waste. 1/3 of food produced globally is either lost or wasted. Addressing food loss and waste is critical to improving food and nutrition security, as well as helping to meet climate goals and reduce stress on the environment. Risks associated with poor diets are also the leading cause of death worldwide. Millions of people are either not eating enough or eating the wrong types of food, resulting in a double burden of malnutrition that can lead to illnesses and health crises. A 2020 report found that nearly 690 million people—or 8.9 percent of the global population—are hungry, up by nearly 60 million in five years. Food insecurity can worsen diet quality and increase the risk of various forms of malnutrition, potentially leading to undernutrition as well as people being overweight and obese. The cost of healthy diets is unaffordable for more than 3 billion people in the world.

The World Bank Group works with countries, providing innovation, infrastructure and resources so that the food and agriculture sector:

  • is climate-smart: more productive and resilient in the face of climate change while reducing emissions, both from crops and livestock
  • improves livelihoods and creates more and better jobs, including for women and youth
  • boosts agribusiness by building inclusive and efficient value chains and
  • improves food security and produces enough safe, nutritious food for everyone, everywhere, every day and is nutrition-smart.

In 2020, there was US$5.8 billion in new IBRD/IDA commitments to agriculture and related sectors. In 2020, 128 projects helped provide 7.2 million farmers with agricultural assets and services. Three million farmers adopted improved agricultural technology. Farmers improved irrigation and drainage on 986,000 hectares of agricultural land.

International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) investments were US$ 4.2 billion. IFC financing goes to agribusiness, food companies, and banks. IFC also helps clients improve productivity, climate-smart practices and food safety.

The Bank is a partner in the CGIAR, Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), the Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP) and Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture.

In Afghanistan, since 2018 women have been establishing thriving businesses, especially in rural areas. A total of 307,030 rural people–more than 80 percent of them women–have joined savings groups in 76 districts in all the 34 provinces. The savings groups have saved US$1.42 million and provided 68,422 loans. 231 women’s enterprise groups have benefitted from loans and stronger links to markets and value chains.

In Armenia since 2014, the Bank has supported 285,000 people in livestock farming and pasture management improvement. Under the project, more than 110,000 heads of livestock–or about 17 percent of Armenia’s total livestock–received improved animal health services.

In Azerbaijan, since 2013 the Bank has helped small and medium agribusinesses improve productivity by more than 60 percent, supported 70 percent of all livestock in the country through its animal disease-control program and invested in seed research and processing to improve seed quality and production.

In Brazil since 2019, 7,400 people in rural communities in Ceará have benefited from improved agricultural production, access to water and sanitation, and 26,000 household water connections have been financed. More than 90,000 people are expected to benefit from this program over the next 5 years.

In Bolivia, since Bank funding began in 2011, community investments have helped fight extreme rural poverty for over 362,670 direct beneficiaries, leading to increased productive investments for more than 206,970 people, expanded or improved irrigation for nearly 74,000 people, and improved road access for nearly 30,000 people.

In Burkina Faso, from 2000-2018, the Bank supported the Programme National de Gestion des Terroirs which decentralized rural development and built local capacity to deliver basic services. The program also invested in water and soil conservation, agroforestry, and energy-saving stoves and other environmental technologies, helping to protect more than 200,000 hectares.

In China, since 2014, a Bank-supported project has helped expand climate-smart agriculture. Better water-use efficiency on 44,000 hectares of farmland and new technologies have improved soil conditions, and boosted production of rice by 12 percent and maize by 9 percent. More than 29,000 farmers’ cooperatives report higher incomes and increased climate resilience.

In Colombia, since 2010, the adoption of environmentally friendly Silvopastoral Production Systems for over 4,100 cattle ranches has converted 100,522 hectares of degraded pastures into more productive landscapes and captured 1,565,026 tons of CO2.

In Cote d’Ivoire, between 2013 and 2017, the Agriculture Sector Project boosted the productivity of 200,000 farmers and rehabilitated 6,500 kilometers of rural roads which allowed farmers to more easily bring their products to market and reduce post-harvest losses. To aid the cashew industry, the Bank also supported a research program that helped disseminate 209 genotypes of high-performing trees and establish 18 nurseries. The Bank-financed project also helped leverage US$27.5 million in private investment to boost productivity on at least 26,500 hectares.

In Croatia, the Bank supported the Ministry of Agriculture in building a National Agriculture and Rural Development Strategy that connects country needs and the EU Common Agricultural Policy.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, between 2011 and 2017, 105,556 people benefited from better access to agricultural services and rural infrastructure. Their cassava yields rose to 19 tons per hectare from 7. They also received access to 2,884 tons of improved maize, rice, groundnut, and sorghum seed, and mobilized US$400,000 through savings groups.

In Djibouti, the Bank supported the construction of 112 water mobilization units, which improved water access for 9,762 households. The Bank also helped introduce hydroponic agriculture to 30 beneficiaries, rehabilitated 96 hectares of irrigated farmland and produced 14,000 seedlings.

In Ethiopia, since 2015, 2.3 million farmers have directly benefited from interventions aimed at improving delivery of agricultural support services, agricultural research, small-scale irrigation, and market infrastructure development. Community projects have been financed for 4,800 Common Interest Groups, benefiting 82,715 subsistence farmers and youth.

In Honduras, since 2010, 11,678 small farmers–3,162 women and 4,076 people of indigenous or African descent–have used productive alliances to improve productivity and access to markets, which has leveraged US$24.4 million in finance from commercial banks and microfinance institutions. Land productivity increased by 24 percent and gross sales of producer organizations rose by 23 percent. Also, support to Honduras’ Dry Corridor Alliance has helped 5,450 households implement food security and agricultural business plans, and improved agricultural yields, nutrition and food diversity for 20,000 people.

In Bihar, India in 2016, the Jeevika project reached 9.8 million women and their families. So far, women have saved more than US$100 million and leveraged US$1.1 billion from the formal financial sector. Nearly 900,000 households benefited from additional income from new livelihood opportunities–including backyard poultry, dairy production and farming and non-farm activities. 65 percent of surveyed households reported higher incomes. Jeevika also helped communities with protective equipment and community kitchens during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 2013, Bank support has strengthened Indonesia’s agricultural research system. 33 Assessment Institute for Agricultural Technology (AIAT) centers now have the capacity to develop improved rice, vegetable, and fruit varieties. The project has supported 161 agricultural researchers through degree programs (68 doctorates and 93 master’s degrees) upgraded 58 labs and 54 research stations, and funded 1,134 research activities including 44 international research collaboration activities.

In Jamaica, between 2009 and 2017, an initiative focused on sustainable growth and stronger value chains helped over 4,320 farmers in 13 parishes. The initiative introduced drip irrigation, water storage, livestock production and processing plants organized 180 greenhouses for year-round crop production and established relationships between farmers and buyers.

In Kenya, since 2016, nearly 1 million farmers–more than 60 percent women–are boosting their productivity and accessing markets. Through partnership with 15 agriculture tech startups, digital technologies are being leveraged to help nearly 50,000 farmers deliver products to consumers—which has proved especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Kosovo, since 2011, the Bank provided 727 grants to farmers and 111 grants to agri-processors to increase production capacities and enhance market competitiveness in the livestock and horticulture sector. This was done through upgrading facilities, adopting new technologies, and introducing food safety and environmental standards.

In Madagascar, since 2016, the Bank has boosted the productivity of over 130,000 farmers. Sixty-thousand hectares of irrigated rice fields have been rehabilitated. The Bank also supported the cocoa sector through research, the development of certified seeds, and promotion of improved production and processing techniques. This allowed 4,000 cocoa producers to increase their incomes and increase production and export volumes by 50 percent. The Bank also financed the country’s largest land rights registration, facilitating the delivery of over 200,000 land certificates to farmers.

In Mexico, until 2018, 1,842 small and medium agribusiness have adopted 2,286 environmentally sustainable energy technologies, reducing C02 emissions by 6.02 million tons.

In Moldova, since 2012, the Bank has helped more than 7,500 farmers gain access to local and regional high-value markets for fresh fruit and vegetables and boosted land productivity through the promotion of sustainable land management practices on 120,000 hectares of farmland.

In Montenegro, the Bank supported 2,870 farmers working on orchards, vineyards, and aromatic plants complying with EU requirements for food safety and environment protection, improving their competitiveness and sustainability.

In Myanmar, the Bank has helped boost irrigation infrastructure and the use of climate-smart technologies. Since 2017, the Bank helped to improve irrigation and drainage on 19,595 hectares of land that serve 33,688 beneficiaries and shared climate-smart agricultural technologies with 8,088 beneficiaries–26 percent of them women.

In Nepal, the Bank-supported Nepal Poverty Alleviation Fund helped small farmers and rural poor people access microcredit, assets, services and training. Since 2004, it has created over 30,000 community organizations and had an impact on more than 900,000 households.

In Nicaragua, between 2015 and 2019, food security in 563 communities along the Caribbean Coast was enhanced, benefiting 75,000 people. Nearly 11,000 families adopted improved agricultural technology and productivity increased by 78 percent.

In Paraguay, since 2008, 20,863 farmers increased their agricultural income by at least 30 percent and 18,951 adopted improved agricultural practices, boosting the productivity of their land.

In Peru, since 2013, nearly 600 agricultural innovations have been identified and tested with the help of competitive matching grants. More than 110 of these innovations have been validated at the farm level, and as of September 2020, one or more of them have been adopted by nearly 32,000 producers.

In the Philippines since 2015, the Bank helped raise rural incomes, enhance farm and fishery productivity, improve market access and mainstream institutional and operational reforms, as well as science-based planning for agricultural commodities in 81 provinces. The project has benefitted a total of 323,501 people—46 percent of them women—with farm roads, irrigation and agricultural enterprise projects, boosting incomes by up to 36 percent.

In Russia, the Bank’s engagement with the Eurasian Center for Food Security (ECFS) helped produce 22 food policy case studies, two publications, four food policy research papers, four international conferences and numerous trainings, and helped build an active network of 1,460 food policy experts from 40 countries.

In Rwanda, between 2010 and 2018, the Bank helped support more than 410,000 farmers–50 percent of them women–in improving their agricultural production by developing over 7,400 hectares for marshland irrigation, providing hillside irrigation on over 2,500 hectares, and improving soil conservation and erosion on more than 39,000 hectares of hillside. Maize yields, rice yields, and potato yields have all more than doubled and around 2.5 tons of vegetables are exported to Europe every week.

In Tajikistan, since 2014, the Bank supports agricultural diversification through the development of value chains–including dairy, apricot, apple, pear, tomato, cucumber, and lemon–allowing 2,127 farmers, 49 percent of whom are female, to procure farm equipment and invest in crop and livestock production, dry fruits processing, and greenhouses.

In Togo, since 2012, the Bank has helped farmers improve breeding techniques, allowing 19,332 producers to grow their incomes and raise healthier livestock. The Bank also provided planting materials to boost production for 33,817 farmers–10 percent of them female–working on 21,209 hectares of cocoa, and 35, 505 hectares of coffee plantations.

In Tunisia, the Bank helped 113 remote rural villages improve land management practices on 37,000 hectares of land to increase productivity, and improved 930 kilometers of rural roads serving some 160 villages.

In Uruguay, since 2014, climate-smart agriculture techniques have been adopted on 2.4 million hectares and adopted by 5,087 farmers, providing for a carbon sequestration potential of up to 9 million tons of CO2 annually.

In Uganda, since 2015, the Bank is leveraging local agri-tech startups to help 150,000 farmers receive electronic vouchers for inputs and services. Scaling up Uganda’s agri-tech startup services will enable 450,000 farmers to hire tractors, use solar-powered irrigation, receive soil test results, receive mobile-based precision agricultural advice, access timely credit through mobile wallets, and sell their harvests through e-marketplace platforms.

In Uzbekistan, since 2017, the Bank helped support the horticulture and livestock sectors, leading to the creation of 32,502 jobs, including 12,762 jobs for women. Horticulture productivity increased by 24 percent, while sales of horticulture products rose by 370 percent on average.

In Vietnam, since 2010, the Bank has promoted sustainable livelihoods by helping develop 9,000 ‘common interest groups’ (CIGs) comprising over 15,500 households, and partnering them with agricultural enterprises. The Bank also helped over 20,000 farmers improve their livestock production and benefited an additional 130,000 people through capacity building in food safety.

Under the West African Agricultural Productivity Program, the Bank supported a research and development effort that promoted technology generation, dissemination, and support to local farming systems in 13 ECOWAS countries. The project reached more than 2.7 million beneficiaries, 41 percent of whom were women. It also generated 112 technologies that reached over 1,850,000 hectares. An impact study found that average annual incomes of beneficiary farmers in Ghana increased by US$307.


The total area of agricultural holdings is about 23.07 million acres (9.34 million hectares), of which about a third are arable and most of the rest is grassland. During the growing season about half the arable area is cereal crops, and of the cereal crop area, more than 65% is wheat. There are about 31 million sheep, 10 million cattle, 9.6 million poultry and 4.5 million pigs. These are arranged on about 212,000 holdings, whose average cultivable area is around 54 hectares (130 acres). About 70% of farms are owner-occupied or mostly so (perhaps with individual barns or fields let out), and the remainder are rented to tenant farmers. Farmers represent an ageing population, partly due to low earnings and barriers to entry, and it is increasingly hard to recruit young people into farming. The average farm holder is about 60 years old. [3] [4] [5] [7]

British farming is on the whole intensive and highly mechanised. This approach is well-suited to the current distribution infrastructure, but can be less productive by area than smaller scale, diversified farming. [8] The UK produces only 59% of the food it consumes. The vast majority of imports and exports are with other Western European countries. [9] [10]

Farming is subsidised, with subsidies to farmers totalling more than £3 billion (after deduction of levies). These subsidies are mostly channelled through the EU Common Agricultural Policy from member states' contributions. UK farmers receive the fifth largest agricultural subsidy in the EU, with 7% of the subsidy, after France (17%), Spain (13%), Germany (12%), and Italy (10%). There is downward pressure on the subsidies.

Regional variations Edit

While there is little difference between farming practices in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in places where the terrain is similar, the geography and the quality of the farmland does have an impact. In Wales, 80% of the farmland is designated as a "Less Favoured Area", and in Scotland the figure is 84%. "Less Favoured Area" means land that produces a lower agricultural yield, typically upland moors and hill farms, which explains the tendency to focus on sheep and sometimes dairy farming. In England, the eastern and southern areas where the fields are flatter, larger and more open tend to concentrate on cereal crops, while the hillier northern and western areas with smaller, more enclosed fields tend to concentrate on livestock farming. [11] [12] [13] [14]

Before 1500 Edit

Farming was introduced in the British Isles between about 5000 BC and 4500 BC from Syria after a large influx of Mesolithic people and following the end of the Pleistocene epoch. It took 2,000 years for the practice to extend across all of the isles. Wheat and barley were grown in small plots near the family home. Sheep, goats and cattle came in from mainland Europe, and pigs were domesticated from wild boar already living in forests. [15] There is evidence of agricultural and hunter-gatherer groups meeting and trading with one another in the early part of the Neolithic. [16]

The Saxons and the Vikings had open-field farming systems. Under the Normans and Plantagenets fens were drained, woods cleared and farmland expanded to feed a rising population, until the Black Death reached Britain in 1349. This and subsequent epidemics caused the population to fall one-third of the population in England died between 1349 and 1350. In consequence, areas of farmland were abandoned. The feudal system began to break down as labourers, who were in short supply following the plague, demanded wages (instead of subsistence) and better conditions. Also, there were a series of poor harvests after about 1315, coinciding with some evidence (from tree rings) of poor weather across the whole of northern Europe, which continued on and off until about 1375. The population did not recover to 1300 levels for 200 to 300 years.

1500 to 1750 Edit

When King Henry VIII named himself Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1531, he set about the dissolution of the monasteries, which was largely complete by 1540. The monasteries had been among the principal landowners in the Kingdom and the Crown took over their land, amounting to about 2,000,000 acres (810,000 ha). This land was largely sold off to fund Henry's military ambitions in France and Scotland, and the main buyers were the aristocracy and landed gentry. Agriculture boomed as grain prices increased sixfold by 1650. Improvements in transport, particularly along rivers and coasts, brought beef and dairy products from the north of England to London. [17]

Jethro Tull, a Berkshire farmer, invented his famous rotating-cylinder seed drill. His 1731 book, The New Horse Hoeing Husbandry, explained the systems and devices he espoused to improve agriculture. The book had such an impact that its influence can still be seen in some aspects of modern farming. Charles Townsend, a viscount known as "Turnip Townsend", in the 1730s introduced turnip farming on a large scale. This created four-crop rotation (wheat, turnips, barley and clover) which allowed fertility to be maintained with much less fallow land. Clover increases mineral nitrogen in the soil and clover and turnips are good fodder crops for livestock, which in turn improve the soil by their manure. [18] [19] [20]

1750 to 1850 Edit

Between 1750 and 1850, the English population nearly tripled, with an estimated increase from 5.7 million to 16.6 million, and all these people had to be fed from the domestic food supply. This was achieved through intensified agriculture and land reclamation from the Fens, woodlands, and upland pastures. The crop mix changed too, with wheat and rye replacing barley. Nitrogen fixing plants such as legumes led to sustainable increased yields. These increased yields, combined with improved farming machinery and then-new capitalist ways of organising labour, meant that increased crop production did not need much more manpower, which freed labour for non-agricultural work. Indeed, by 1850 Britain had the smallest proportion of its population engaged in farming of any country in the world, at 22%. [21] [22] [23]

Enclosures Edit

Open fields divided among several tenants originally had the advantage of reducing risks by giving all farmers diverse soils and crops so no one faced famine when others prospered. But the system was inefficient. Poor farmers got as much land as good farmers. By the 18th century enclosures came in poorer regions where several landholders were more willing to sell land. After 1760, though, parliamentary legislation permitted the enclosure of wealthier lands that had more complex structures of ownership. The result was an added £4 million to England's national income. [24]

During the 18th and 19th centuries, enclosures were by means of special acts of Parliament. They consolidated strips in the open fields into more cohesive units, and enclosed much of the remaining pasture commons or wastes. Enclosure consisted of exchange in land, and an extinguishing of common rights. This allowed farmers to consolidate and fence off their own large plots of land, in contrast to multiple small strips spread out and separated. Voluntary enclosure was also frequent at that time. [25]

At the time of the parliamentary enclosures, most manors had seen consolidation of tenant farms into multiple large landholdings. Multiple larger landholders already held the bulk of the land. [26] They 'held' but did not legally own in today's sense. They also had to respect the open field system rights, when demanded, even when in practice the rights were not widely in use. Similarly each large landholding would consist of scattered patches, not consolidated farms. In many cases enclosures were largely an exchange and consolidation of land, and exchange not otherwise possible under the legal system. It did also involve the extinguishing of common rights. Without extinguishment, one man in an entire village could unilaterally impose the common field system, even if everyone else did not desire to continue the practice. De jure rights were not in accord with de facto practice. With land one held, one could not formally exchange the land, consolidate fields, or entirely exclude others. Parliamentary enclosure was seen as the most cost-effective method of creating a legally binding settlement. This is because of the costs (time, money, complexity) of using the common law and equity legal systems. Parliament required consent of the owners of 4/5-ths of the land (copy and freeholders).

The primary benefits to large land holders came from increased value of their own land, not from expropriation. Smaller holders could sell their land to larger ones for a higher price post enclosure. There was not much evidence that the common rights were particularly valuable. [27] Protests against Parliamentary Enclosure continued, sometimes in Parliament itself, frequently in the villages affected, and sometimes as organised mass revolts. [28] Voluntary enclosure was frequent at that time. [29] Enclosed land was twice as valuable, a price which could be sustained only by its higher productivity. [30]

Depression and prosperity Edit

This peaceful period included a twenty-year depression in agriculture 1815 to 1836. It was so severe that landlords as well as tenants suffered financial ruin, and large areas of farmland were entirely abandoned. The ancient landlord and tenant system was unsuited to new-style, capital-intensive farms, which caused concern in Parliament. Parliament began to improve the legislation, for example by distinguishing between farm improvements that the tenant should fund, and those the landlord should fund. [31]

From 1836 until Parliament repealed the Corn Laws in 1846, agriculture flourished. The repeal of the Corn Laws steadied prices, though agriculture remained prosperous. At that time, Parliament was concerned with the issue of tenant right, i.e. the sum payable to an outgoing tenant for farm improvements that the tenant had funded and, if crops were in the ground when the tenant left, compensation for their value. This was down to local custom which might vary from place to place. In 1848 a parliamentary committee examined the possibility of a standardised system, but a Bill on the matter was not passed until 1875. [32]

1850 to 1939 Edit

The American Civil War ended in 1865, and by 1875, with new steam-powered railways and ships, the United States was exporting a substantial excess of cereals. At the same time, Britain suffered a series of poor harvests. By 1891 reliable refrigeration technology brought cheap frozen meat from Australia, New Zealand and South America to the British market, and Parliament felt it had to intervene to support British farming. The Agricultural Holdings (England) Act 1875 revamped the law on tenant right such that tenants received consistent levels of compensation for the value of their improvements to the holding and any crops in the ground. It also gave tenants the right to remove fixtures they had provided, increased the period of a Notice to Quit from six months to twelve, and brought in an agricultural dispute resolution procedure. [33]

Some Landlords reacted to the 1875 Act by refusing to let land on a tenancy, instead contracting out the labour to contract farmers. Parliament responded with the Agricultural Holdings (England) Act 1883, which prevented contracting out on terms less favourable than a normal tenancy. Subsequent Agricultural Holdings Acts in 1900 and 1906 further refined the dispute resolution procedure required landlords to compensate tenants for their damaged crops if the damage was caused by game that the landlord did not allow tenants to kill allowed tenants to choose for themselves what crops to grow, except in the last year of the tenancy and prevented penal rents being charged except in special circumstances. The mass of legislation was consolidated in another Act of 1908. Further Agricultural Holdings Acts came into force in 1914, two in 1920, and a further consolidating Act in 1923. [34]

Invented in around 1885, the digging plough is a plough with a wider share, which cuts a wider shallower furrow, after which the slice of soil is inverted by a short concave mould-board with a sharp turn. This has the effect of breaking up and pulverising the soil, leaving no visible furrow and facilitating the use of a seed drill for planting. Earlier ploughs were simply large hoes for stirring the soil, drawn by animals, that left furrows suitable for distribution of seed by hand. [35]

The Board of Agriculture was established by Act of Parliament in 1889. Although rationing during the First World War was limited to the end of 1917 and 1918, a change of mood arose about food security, and the Ministry of Food was created in 1916. There was a national feeling that a man who had fought for his country should be entitled to retire to a smallholding on British land that would provide him with a livelihood. This led to various initiatives, collectively called Homes for Heroes. By 1926 agricultural law had become openly redistributive in favour of ex-servicemen. County Councils had compulsory purchase powers to requisition land they could let as smallholdings. Ex-servicemen were the preferred tenants. The tenant could then buy the land and could ask the Council to lend them money to fund the purchase as a mortgage. The Council could not refuse without the Minister of Agriculture's permission. [36]

In 1919 the Board of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food were merged to form the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, which later became the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF). MAFF was in turn the predecessor of DEFRA.

1939 to 1945 Edit

Before the Second World War started, Britain imported 55 million tons of food a year. By the end of 1939, this had dropped to 12 million, and food rationing was introduced at the start of 1940. It did not completely end until July 1954. The government tried to encourage people to grow their own food in victory gardens, and householders were encouraged to keep rabbits and chickens for the table. Because so many men had been conscripted into the army, women were drafted in to work the land they were called the Women's Land Army, or less formally, "land girls". [37]

Famously, the Government responded to a temporary wartime oversupply of carrots by suggesting that the RAF's exceptional night-flying was due to eating carotene. The ruse worked: consumption of carrots increased sharply because people thought carrots might help them see in the blackout, thus taking the pressure off other food supplies. But with so much of the agricultural labour force fighting, pressure on food supplies worldwide increased throughout the war. The government estimated that in 1945 world meat consumption would exceed supply by 1.8 million tons and that only wheat would be "available in abundance". The Prime Minister suggested that if necessary, food supplies could take priority over supplies for the military, and considered the possibility of famine in the occupied territories after the war. [38]

1945 to present Edit

The Agriculture Act 1947 broadly revamped agricultural law. It was a reaction to the privations of the Second World War, and was aimed at food security, so as to reduce the risk of a hostile foreign power being able to starve the UK into submission. The Act guaranteed prices, markets and tenure, so that a farmer could be assured that his land would not be taken away and whatever he grew would be sold at a known price. Yet another consolidating Agricultural Holdings Act followed it in 1948. These Acts made it harder to evict tenant farmers. With the new security tenants enjoyed, a system of rent reviews was necessary to take account of land price inflation. There were many other changes in the law, and each of these Acts needed negotiations between the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Farmers Union (NFU) to fix the support price to be paid for each agricultural product. They were enacted in a series of Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Acts in 1949, 1954, 1963, 1968 and 1972. [39]

The Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 was another far-reaching revamp of the law. At the time it was passed, the Lib-Lab Pact of 1976 needed Plaid Cymru's support in Parliament, and the provisions of this Act were part of Plaid Cymru's price for their vote. This Act allowed for succession of agricultural tenancies, so on a farmer's death, a relative with relevant skills or experience and no holding of his own could inherit the tenancy. This was limited to two generations of tenant. [40]

On government instructions, the Northfield Committee began to review the country's agricultural system in 1977. It did not report until July 1979, by which time Margaret Thatcher's administration held power. The report influenced ongoing discussions between the NFU and the Country Landowners Association (CLA), who were trying to reach an agreement on new Agricultural Holdings legislation that could be presented to Parliament as having industry-wide support. This was agreed in 1984, but the two sides had not been able to agree a fundamental change to the security of tenure legislation. It did change the succession rules for existing tenancies such that a farmer might pass on his tenancy on retirement as well as on death—but no new tenancies from 1984 were to include succession rights. [41]

By this time the then-European Economic Community (now the European Community)'s Common Agricultural Policy and the value of the green pound was having a direct impact on farming. The Agriculture Act 1986 was concerned with the value of the milk quota attached to land, and particularly how it ought to be shared between landlord and tenant. Nowadays, milk quotas no longer exist, but other subsidies (largely rolled up into Single Payments) still must be divided between the parties. [42]

The National Farmers Union Edit

The National Farmers Union (NFU) was begun by a group of nine Lincolnshire farmers and, as the "Lincolnshire Farmers Union", held its first meeting in 1904. By 1908 they were called the National Farmers Union and were meeting in London. During the Second World War, the NFU worked hand in glove with the Ministry of Agriculture to ensure food security. Rationing continued after the war and it is a measure of the NFU's influence at that time that the Agriculture Act 1947 committed the government to undertake a national review of the industry every year in consultation with the NFU. [43] [44]

The close relationship between the NFU and the MAFF continued until New Labour reformed the MAFF into Defra in 2001, and indeed the MAFF was sometimes (if unfairly) called the "NFU's political wing". Defra is seen as more independent, although the NFU does remain a powerful and effective lobbying body that wields considerable influence in proportion to the industry's economic value. [43] [44]

Agricultural colleges Edit

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, as farming grew more complex and methodical and as productivity increased, there was a dawning recognition that farmers needed agricultural education. The Royal Agricultural University, which was the first agricultural college in the English-speaking world, opened as the Royal Agricultural College in 1845. It was granted its royal charter shortly after its founding. Thanks to government financial support for agricultural education in the 1890s, the Royal Agricultural College was followed by Writtle College in 1893 and Harper Adams University College in 1901. Meanwhile, the West of Scotland Agricultural College formed in 1899, the East of Scotland Agricultural College in 1901, and the North of Scotland Agricultural College in 1904 these colleges amalgamated to form the Scottish Agricultural College in 1990. [45] Professor John Wrightson opened his private Downton Agricultural College in 1880 it closed in 1906 as it was unable to compete with the publicly funded state colleges. [46]

Total income from farming in the United Kingdom was £5.38 billion in 2014, representing about 0.7% of the British national value added in that year. This is a fall of 4.4% in real terms since 2014. Earnings were £30,900 per full-time person in 2011, which represented an increase of 24% from 2010 values in real terms. This was the best performance in UK agriculture since the 1990s. Agriculture employs 476,000 people, representing 1.5% of the workforce, down more than 32% since 1996. In terms of gross value added in 2009, 83% of the UK's agricultural income originated from England, 9% from Scotland, 4% from Northern Ireland and 3% from Wales. [1] [47] [48] [49] [50]

The top twenty agricultural products of the United Kingdom by value as reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization in 2012 (volume in metric tons): [51] [52]

1. Milk (cow) 13,884,000
2. Wheat 13,261,000
3. Chicken meat 1,396,830
4. Cattle meat 882,000
5. Pig meat 770,150
6. Sheep meat 285,000
7. Potatoes 4,553,000
8. Rapeseed 2,557,000
9. Hen eggs 630,000
10. Sugar beet 7,291,000
11. Turkey meat 201,348
12. Barley 5,522,000
13. Carrots and turnips 663,700
14. Mushrooms and truffles 73,100
15. Wool, grease 68,000
16. Strawberries 95,700
17, Apples 202,900
18. Onions 373,610
19. Lettuce and chicory 122,000
20. Duck meat 32,101

Most farmers of beef cattle or sheep made another net loss in the year to April 2010. Production, veterinary, bedding, property, power and machinery costs all underwent double-digit rises in percentage terms, meaning that the losses in the year to April 2010 increased over last year's losses by over £30/animal. However, wheat exports were much stronger than the previous year. [53]

The UK's egg-laying flock is in decline. It fell by 5.5% in one year from June 1999 to May 2000. In 1971, there were 125,258 farms with egg-laying hens and by 1999 this was down to 26,500. [54]

Subsidies Edit

UK farmers receive £3.5 billion a year from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy via the Single Farm Payment. [55] This is roughly £28,300 per farm, although this includes around £3,000 of environmental subsidies, such as for planting woodland. [56]

The agricultural area used is 23.07 million acres (9.34 million hectares), about 70% of the land area of the England. 36% of the agricultural land is croppable (arable), or 25% of the total land area. Most of the rest is grassland, rough grazing, or woodland. [57] [58]

Soil is a complex mix of mineral and organic components, produced when rock is weathered and acted on by living organisms. Most British soils are 2% to 5% organic and 95% to 98% mineral, but soils such as peat may contain up to 50% organic matter. In the British Isles as far south as the Thames Valley, the soil has been heavily glaciated, which not only ground down the rock but redistributed the resulting matter. As a result, most British soils date from the last Ice Age and are comparatively young, but in level areas and particularly south of the Thames Valley, there are much older soils. [59]

Many British soils are quite acidic, and a large proportion of British farm land needs repeated applications of alkalines (traditionally lime) to remain fertile. Nitrites are soluble, so rain rapidly carries them away. Acid rain increases soil acidity, but even normal rain tends to be slightly acid, increasing the natural acidity of British soil. Rainfall in Britain exceeds the rate of evaporation. This means that in freely drained areas, soil base material is washed away, which leads to a higher concentration of organic acids in the ground. This relatively high soil acidity is one of the factors that lead to liming. Lime tends to counteract soil acidity, and with fine particulate soils such as clays, also encourages the formation of a better soil crumb structure that will aerate and help with drainage. Its benefits have been known, if not scientifically understood, since Roman times. [60] [61]

Soffe (2003) [62] summarises the acidity of British soils as follows:-

Land type pH
Sandy heath land 3.5–5.0
Calcareous (chalky) brown soil 6.5–8.0
Upland peat 3.5–4.5
Cultivated soil, non-calcareous 5.0–7.0
Cultivated soil, calcareous 7.0–8.0
Permanent pasture, lowland 5.0–6.0
Permanent pasture, upland 4.5–5.5
Lowland peat 4.0–7.0

Owing to high rainfall in the UK, less freely drained areas tend to become waterlogged. Wet land may be unable to bear a tractor's weight, and drainage makes soil lighter and more easily worked, improves crops' ability to absorb food because there is more root surface area, stimulates helpful micro-organisms and allows accumulated poisons to be carried away. In Britain field drains are traditionally open ditches, but increasingly, covered pipes have been used in more modern times. Earthworms are important for creating small drainage channels in the soil and helping to move soil particles. [63] [64] [65]

No appreciable plant growth takes place at temperatures below 4 °C. The growth rate increases as temperature rises, up to a maximum limit which is of no relevance to the British Isles. Dark soils tend to absorb more heat, and are therefore preferred.

As crops grow, they absorb nutrients from the soil, so land fertility degrades over time. However, if organic matter poor in nitrogen but rich in carbohydrate is added to the soil, nitrogen is assimilated and fixed. Fertility increases while land is under grass, which helps to accumulate organic matter in the soil. These factors mean that soil is traditionally improved by means of liming, draining, and allowing to lie fallow. It is traditionally fertilised with manure, nitrogen, phosphates, and potash. [66]

Manure, nitrogen and Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ) Edit

170 million tonnes of animal excreta ("slurry") is produced annually in the UK. This slurry can pollute watercourses, draining them of oxygen, can contain pathogenic microorganisms such as salmonella, and creates an odour that causes complaints if stored near people. Pigs and poultry in particular, which tend to be produced intensively on large holdings with a relatively small land area per animal, create manure that tends to be processed. This is done either by removing the liquid component and transporting it away, or by composting it, or more recently, by anaerobic digestion to produce methane which is later converted to electricity. [67] [68]

Farmyard manure is among the best all-round soil fertilisers. Urine contains about half the nitrogen and most of the potash that an animal voids, but tends to drain away, making it both the richest and the most easily lost element of manure. Dung contains the other half of the nitrogen and most of the phosphoric acid and lime. With dung, much of the nitrogen is lost in storage or locked up in slowly released forms, so greater quantities are necessary compared to artificial fertilisers. Manure is most effective when ploughed into the fields while it is still fresh, but this is not practical while crops are growing and in practice, most manure is stored and then applied in winter, or else added in ridges for root crops. [69] [70]

Leguminous plants such as peas, beans or lucerne live in a symbiotic relationship with certain bacteria that produce nodules on their roots. The bacteria extract nitrogen from the air and convert it to nitrogenating compounds that benefit the legume. When the legume dies or is harvested, its rotting roots nitrogenate the soil. Nitrogen stimulates plant growth, but overapplication softens the plant tissues, makes them more vulnerable to pests and disease, and reduces resistance to frost. It may be added by nitrogen-fixing crops, but many farmers prefer artificial fertilisers, which are quicker. The negative side-effects of adding nitrogen are mitigated by phosphates. [71]

Nitrogen from soil gets into the water, and can be hazardous to human health. EC Directive 80/778/EEC and 91/676/EEC both mention a ceiling acceptable level of nitrates of 50 mg/litre, which is also the level recommended by the World Health Organization. In several places in Britain, particularly in the midlands and the south-east, nitrate concentrations occasionally exceed this level and the government has brought in regulations to control nitrate levels in the water. The regulations governing designated Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ) aim to protect ground and surface water from contamination with nitrates and manure. Around 68% of English farmland, 14% of Scottish farmland and all of Welsh farmland is within a NVZ. The NVZ rules control at what time of year farmers may apply nitrogen or manure to the land and oblige them to keep strict records of nitrogen-containing substances used. They also regulate slurry and manure storage. [72] [73] [74]

The Welsh Government introduced an all Wales NVZ in 2021. Previously, 2.4% of Wales' land was designated as a NVZ. Environmental and fishing groups welcomed the new rules. It will be rolled out, pending a review by the Senedd, over the next three years. The review came after major political backlash from opposition parties and farmers. [75] [76] [77]

Phosphates and potash Edit

Phosphates are substances that contain phosphorus, which stimulates root development in young plants and is therefore particularly valuable for root crops. It also increases yields and speeds up plant growth generally. Phosphates are not easily lost from soil, but they mostly occur in very stable forms that are not liberated quickly enough by natural processes, so fertilisation is necessary. Traditionally, phosphate-bearing materials added to soil include bonemeal, powdered slag, and seaweed. [78]

Potashes are substances that contain potassium which promotes disease resistance and helps to build starches and sugars. Plants tend to absorb potash during early stages of growth, and potash tends to reduce the problems caused by applying nitrogen. It also increases the weight of an individual cereal grain. Traditional potash sources included applying ash to the land and ploughing in crop residues after the harvest. Artificial potash fertilisers were not used until deposits of potash salts were discovered in Germany in 1861. [79]

Arable farming is the production of crops. Crop growth is affected by light, soil, nutrients, water, air, and climate. Crops commonly grown in the United Kingdom include cereals, chiefly wheat, oats and barley root vegetables, chiefly potatoes and sugar beet pulse crops such as beans or peas forage crops such as cabbages, vetches, rape and kale fruit, particularly apples and pears and hay for animal feed. From 1992 until 2004, or 2006 for organic farms, there were subsidies for not growing any crops at all. This was called set-aside and resulted from EEC farming policies. From 2007 onwards, set aside subsidies in the UK were withdrawn. [80]

Seeds may be sown in spring, summer or autumn. Spring-sown crops are vulnerable to drought in May or June. Autumn sowing is usually restricted to frost-hardy types of bean, vetch, or cereal such as winter wheat. Traditional sowing techniques include broadcasting, dibbling, drilling, and ploughing in. Drilling is normally the most economical technique where conditions are dry enough. [81] [82]

Climate change will have positive impacts on crop production in Ireland. The combined effects of higher CO2 concentration, warmer spring/summer temperatures and lengthened growing season will all be beneficial to certain types of crop production, specifically grains and barley and detrimental to other crops, such as potatoes. [83]

Cereal production statistics Edit

Year 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
tonnes (millions) 23.988 18.959 22.965 21.511 22.005 21.012 20.816 19.130 24.283 21.168 20.946 [84]

In 2009, 3,133,000 hectares (7,740,000 acres) of cereal crops were sown in the UK. There were 581,000 hectares (1,440,000 acres) of oil seed rape, 233,000 hectares (580,000 acres) of peas and beans, 149,000 hectares (370,000 acres) of potatoes, and 116,000 hectares (290,000 acres) of sugar beet. Winter crops tend to be planted around mid-September, and spring crops as soon as the soil is ready. Each year the country produces about 6.5 million tonnes of barley, of which 1.5 million are exported, 2 million used in brewing and distilling activities and the remainder fed to livestock. The country also produces 14 to 15 million tons of wheat each year, of which farmers kept 3.9 million tonnes as stock in February 2012. In 2008, 750,000 tonnes of oats were produced, in 2011–2012 613,000. [85] [86] [87] [88] [89] [90] [91]

During 1999–2003 production of barley ranged from 6,128,000 to 7,456,000, wheat from 11,580,000 to 16,704,000 and oats from 491,000 to 753,000. [92]

Consumption Edit

Consumption of oats by the human population compared with livestock is proportionally higher in the UK than in European countries, 455,000 tonnes as forecast by farm officials during 2012 with 163,000 tonnes fed to livestock during 2011–2012. [93]

From 2002 to 2003, of the cereals grown, 31% of barley, 36% of oats and 34% of wheat were used for human consumption. [92]

Methods Edit

Ploughing is not always regarded as essential nowadays, but the plough can improve soil by inverting it to improve soil aeration and drainage, release nutrients through weathering, and expose harmful pests to predators. It is also an effective method of weed control. Ploughing depth in Britain varies between 5–6 inches in some limestone regions to up to 18 inches in deep stoneless silt land. Most British ploughs are designed to turn a furrow of up to about a foot deep, which is relatively shallow compared to some other countries, where furrows of up to 16 inches are common. Other machines used to prepare land include cultivators (to break up land too heavy for a normal plough), harrows (to level the surface of ploughed land), rolls or rollers (used for firming the soil), sprayers and dusters (used to spread herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and fertilisers). [94]

Reaping is the process of harvesting a crop. Traditionally reaping was done with the scythe and reaping hook, but in Britain these have been entirely superseded by machinery. Combine harvesters, so called because they both harvest and thresh the crop, are common. Other machines used include mowers, reapers, binders, harvesters, pea cutters and flax pullers. Once reaped, some crops are brought directly to market. Others need to be threshed to separate the cash crop from the straw and chaff. Wheat, oats, barley, beans and some kinds of small seed (e.g. clover) typically need to be threshed. [95] [96]

Since the Second World War, scientific and technical progress and the removal of tenancy-based restrictions on choice of crop have given British arable farmers a great deal more freedom to plan cropping sequences. Strict crop rotation is no longer technically necessary or even financially desirable. Factors that influence crop sequences include the soil type, weather, the price and availability of labour and power, market outlets, and technical considerations about maintaining soil fertility and crop health. For example, some vigorous crops such as kale or arable silage will, when liberally fertilised, tend to outgrow and smother weeds. Many pests and diseases are crop-specific and the more often a particular crop is taken, the greater the buildup of pests and diseases that attack it. The farmer will therefore try to design a sequence to sustain high yields, permit adequate weed control, service market needs, and keep the soil free from diseases and pests.

As a direct result of climate change, harvesting is coming earlier in the year. The increased temperatures and CO2 levels allow this to happen. This means crops can be harvested well in advance of the heavy rain season. [97]

Diseases Edit

Most diseases of crop plants result from fungus spores that may live in the soil and enter through roots, be airborne and enter the plant through damaged areas or landing on leaf surfaces, or are spread by pests. These spores tend to affect photosynthesis and reduce chlorophyll. They often make plants look yellow and affect growth and marketability of the crop. They are most commonly treated with fungicides, and may be called mildews, rusts, blotches, scabs, wilts, rots or blights. European Union regulations on pesticides are changing, and several important pesticides currently in use will no longer be available. This has potentially quite serious implications for British agriculture. [98] [99] [100]

Climate change is bringing with it the earlier onset of winter rain. These very wet soils during spring time will also lead to unwanted pest and disease problems during the plating season. [83]

Two of the most serious diseases currently affecting crop plants are colony collapse disorder (CCD), a somewhat mysterious effect that is wiping out honeybee colonies worldwide, and varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that also affects honeybees and may be a contributor to CCD. Honeybees pollinate 80% of plants worldwide. In 2007, up to 80% of the bee colonies in some areas were wiped out. Honeybees pollinate crops worth about £200 million a year, and their total contribution to the economy may be as high as £1 billion. [101]

Weeds Edit

Historically weed control was by hand-pulling of weeds, often during "fallowing" (which means leaving the land to carry no crop for a season, during which time the weeds can be found and removed). In 1896 it was found that a copper sulphate solution would kill broad-leaved weeds without seriously damaging young cereal plants. Other chemical weedkillers were soon discovered and now common chemical weedkiller ingredients include sodium chlorate, copper chloride, sulphuric acid, dinitroorthocresol and dinitrobutylphenol. Hormone-based weedkillers are used to kill weeds more selectively. Although most weeds are vulnerable to at least one of these substances, eradicating all the weeds from a particular area will usually need several different weedkillers. The use of pesticides has declined, and British farmers now use about a third less pesticides than they did in 1983. The crop needing most pesticides is wheat. [102] [103] [104] [105]

Table of significant crop weeds [106]
Common name Latin name Crops affected
Barren brome Anisantha sterilis Cereals
Black bindweed Polygonum persicaria Broad-leaved crops
Blackgrass Alopecurus myosuroides Winter cereals
Bracken Pteridium aquilinum Upland and hill grassland
Buttercups Ranunculus spp. Grassland
Charlock Sinapis arvensis Broad-leaved crops
Chickweed Stellaria media Broad-leaved crops
Cleavers Galium aparine Broad-leaved crops
Corn marigold Chrysanthemum segetum Cereals
Couch Elytrigia repens spp. Grassland
Docks Rumex spp. Grassland
Dove's-foot cranesbill Geranium molle Broad-leaved crops
Fat hen Chenopodium album Broad-leaved crops
Hemp nettle Galeopsis spp. Broad-leaved crops
Japanese knotweed Reynoutria japonica Grassland
Knotgrass Polygonum aviculare Broad-leaved crops
Mayweeds Matricaria spp. Anthemis spp. Broad-leaved crops cereals
Mouse-eared chickweed Cerastium fontanum Grassland
Redshank Polygonum persicaria Broad-leaved crops
Rushes Juncus spp. Wet grassland
Speedwell Veronica persica Broad-leaved crops
Spurrey Spergula arvensis Broad-leaved crops
Thistles Cirsium spp. Grassland
Wild oats Avena fatua Spring cereals
Winter wild oats Avena ludoviciana Winter cereals
Perennial weeds
Annual grass weeds
Annual broad-leaved weeds

Pests Edit

A pest is an animal that eats or spoils food meant for humans. Pests damage crops by removing leaf area, severing roots, or simply gross damage. In the UK, they comprise invertebrates (chiefly nematodes, slugs and insects or insect larvae), mammals (particularly rabbits) and birds (mainly members of the pigeon family). The damage caused by crop pests is considerable. For example, potato cyst nematodes cause over £50 million damage a year in the UK. [100] [107]

Table of important crop pests
Common name Latin name Crops affected [108]
Frit fly Oscinella frit Cereals, forage grasses
Wheat bulb fly Delia coarctata Cereals
Aphids Sitobion avenae Rhopalosiphum padi Cereals
Cereal cyst nematode Heterodera avenae Cereals
Peach-potato aphid Myzus persicae Potatoes, sugar beet
Potato cyst nematode Globodera rostochiensis and G. pallida Potatoes
Slug Deroceras reticulatum Brassicas
Pigeon Columba palumbus Brassicas
Flea beetle Phyllotreta spp. Brassicas
Cabbage stem flea beetle Psylliodes chrysocephala Brassicas
Pollen beetle Meligethes spp. Brassicas
Cabbage caterpillar Various spp. Brassicas
Millipede Various spp. Sugar beet
Springtail Onychiurus spp. Sugar beet
Symphylid Scutigerella immaculata Sugar beet
Beet flea beetle Chaetocnema concinna Sugar beet
Black bean aphid Aphis fabae Sugar beet, peas and beans
Beet cyst nematode Heterodera schachtii Sugar beet
Pea cyst nematode Heterodera goettingiana Peas and beans
Pea and bean weevil Sitona lineatus Peas and beans
Pea aphid Acyrthosiphum pisum Peas and beans
Pea moth Cydia nigricana Peas and beans
Pea midge Contarinia pisi Peas and beans
Bean seed fly Delia platura Peas and beans
Carrot fly Psila rosea Carrots
Willow-carrot aphid Cavariella aegopodii Carrots
Onion fly Delia antiqua Onions
Stem and bulb nematode Ditylenchus dipsaci Onions
Weevils Sitona spp. Forage grasses
Ryegrass mosaic virus Spread by the mite Abacarus hystrix Forage grasses
Clover stem nematode Ditylenchus dipsaci Clover plants
Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus Any plant

Pastoral farming is the breeding of livestock for meat, wool, eggs and milk, and historically (in the UK) for labour. Livestock products are the main element of the UK's agricultural output. The most common meat animals in the United Kingdom are cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry. Overwhelmingly, British wool comes from sheep, with only a few goats or alpacas bred for exotic wools such as cashmere or angora. The vast majority of milk comes from cattle, and eggs from chickens. [109]

Most British farm animals are bred for a particular purpose, so for example, there is a sharp division between cattle bred for the beef trade—early-maturing cattle are best to increase yield, and those that store fat marbled within the muscle rather than as layers outside are preferred for the flavour—and those bred for dairy, where animals with a high milk yield are strongly preferred. Nevertheless, because dairy cattle must calve to produce milk, much of the British beef output is from surplus dairy herd calves. [110] [111]

Cattle farming Edit

There are about 17,000 dairy farms in the UK, largely in the west. Average herd size is 86 cows in England, 75 in Wales and 102 in Scotland. Most cows are milked twice a day, and an average dairy cow yields 6,300 litres a year. The most important dairy cattle breed is the ubiquitous British Friesian, which has largely replaced the Dairy Shorthorn in British dairy herds thanks both to its high milk yield and the relatively high quality of the beef it produces. [112] [113]

The UK once produced roughly as much beef as it ate, but this changed in 1996 because of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The BSE crisis led to regulations preventing animals more than 30 months old from entering the food chain, which meant cull cows could no longer be sold for beef. Just under 6 million cattle over this age were destroyed. A Calf Purchase Aid Scheme, under which a further nearly 2 million calves were slaughtered, ended in 1999. In 2002, the UK produced 72% of the beef it ate. Important beef cattle breeds include the Hereford, which is the most popular British beef breed, and the Aberdeen Angus. The once-widespread Beef Shorthorn is now a relatively uncommon sight. [114]

Cows require significant areas of grassland to raise. Dairy cows need 0.4 to 0.5 hectares per cow, including the area needed for winter silage suckler beef cows can need up to a whole hectare each. The UK produces very little veal, and UK law requires that animals are kept in daylight in groups with bedding and access to hay, silage or straw. This produces "pink" veal which grows more slowly and is less desirable to the continental customer. [115] [116]

Sheep farming Edit

Over 41,000 farms in the UK produce sheep, but more than half of breeding ewes are on hill or upland farms suitable for little else. National Parks and heather moors such as the Lake District, the Pennines and Snowdonia in Wales are dominated by sheep farms, as are the Scottish Highlands. In the lowlands, pockets of sheep farms remain. Romney Marsh (which gave its name to the Romney sheep) and The Downs in Kent are famous for their sheep. [117] Sheep farming in Wales encompasses both upland and lowland areas.

The number of sheep farmed in the UK peaked in 1998 at 20.3 million, as a result of the Sheepmeat Regime, a relatively generous EU support initiative first begun in 1980. Numbers declined following the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth, and the UK temporarily lost its place as Europe's largest producer of lamb, although this was recovered later. (Although it is Europe's largest producer, the UK is nevertheless a net importer of lamb, often from New Zealand.) [117]

Nowadays many ewes are housed indoors for lambing, which costs more but facilitates earlier lambing with lower mortality and replacement rates. It also rests and protects the grassland, leading to better early growth and higher stocking rates. Sheep are also important in helping to manage the landscape. Their trampling hinders bracken spread and prevents heather moor from reverting to scrub woodland. Wool production is no longer economically important in the UK, and nowadays, sheared fleeces are often treated as a waste product. [118]

Pig farming Edit

Pig farming is concentrated in Yorkshire and East Anglia. [119] About 4,600 farms produce pigs, and the UK is 90% self-sufficient in pork, but only about 40% self-sufficient in bacon and ham, which reflects a traditional British preference for these cuts. Nowadays many pig farms in the UK breed intensively farmed hybrids of types like the Large White, British Landrace, Welsh or British Saddleback, and formerly popular breeds like the Cumberland and Small White are extinct. Wild boar are sometimes farmed. They are currently covered under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 and farmers need permission from their local authority to keep them. [120] [121]

The UK pig herd is declining, and there are now some individual pig farms in the US that have more sows than there are in the UK as a whole. Pigs often used to be kept indoors throughout their lives, but welfare concerns and increased costs have led to more outdoor units, and by 2002 30% of sows were outdoors. In many countries sows are kept tethered in individual stalls, but this system was banned in the UK in 1999 on animal welfare grounds. Indoor sows are housed in groups. Each sow produces an average of 24 piglets a year and will be pregnant or lactating for 340 days a year. This intensive production wears the sows out, and about 40% of them need to be replaced each year. [122]

A major byproduct of pig production is slurry. One sow and her piglets can produce ten tonnes of slurry a year. Because regulations limit how much slurry can be loaded onto a given area of land, this means that each sow with her progeny will manure at least 0.8 hectares. This is a problem because pig manure is mildly toxic, owing to the use of copper as a growth enhancer. [123]

Other livestock and poultry Edit

The UK has about 73,000 goats, mostly as milk producers this number is relatively small by EU standards. [Notes 1] Venison production in the UK is mainly from red deer, with a few fallow deer as well, but there are only about 300 venison-producing farms. As noted above, there are about 26,500 farms with chickens. However, more than half the UK's eggs come from fewer than 400 flocks, mostly with more than 50,000 birds each. Other livestock and poultry farmed on a smaller scale include game birds, ducks, geese, turkeys, ostriches and rabbits. [125] [126] In this way, the UK produce annually 22 million turkeys. [127] [128]

Livestock movement and record-keeping Edit

Farmers wanting to move their livestock outside their own farms must obey the Disease Control (England) Order 2003, the Disease Control (Wales) Order 2003 or the Disease Control (Interim Measures) (Scotland) Order 2002, as applicable. This means a farmer needs a licence from the Local Authority to move livestock. There are also minimum "standstill" periods once livestock has been moved, so for example, a farmer buying new cattle and moving them onto his farm must then wait six days before taking other cattle to market. Most livestock must be identified. Each individual cow must have a "passport" issued by the British Cattle Movement Service. Other farm animals such as sheep, goats or pigs must have a herd mark. [129] [130]

Disease Edit

Designated notifiable diseases under the Diseases of Animals Act include anthrax, foot-and-mouth disease, fowl pest, bovine tuberculosis, BSE, scrapie, swine vesicular disease, Aujeszky's disease, bovine leukemia virus, rabies and warble fly. Under the Zoonoses Order conditions that can be transmitted to humans, such as brucellosis or salmonella, must also be notified. [131]

The United Kingdom suffered outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in 1967 and 2001, with a less serious outbreak in 2007. There was also an outbreak of bluetongue in 2007. The most serious disease to affect British agriculture was BSE, a cattle brain disease that causes a similar disease in some humans who eat infected meat. It has killed 166 people in Britain since 1994. [132] [133]

A current issue is the control of bovine tuberculosis, which can also be carried by badgers. It is alleged that the badgers are infecting the cows. A scientific report for the government recommended a selective cull of badgers, which immediately met with opposition from other scientists. The government is currently consulting on this issue. As of 16 September 2011, a total of 27 online petitions had attracted 65,000 signatures opposing the plan. [134] [135] [136] [137]

Animal welfare Edit

Animal welfare legislation affecting UK agriculture includes the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the Welfare of Farmed Animals Regulations 2007 and the Welfare of Animals (Transport) Order 1997. The UK has a good reputation for animal welfare, and there are several codes of practice. [138]

Animal welfare [Notes 2] as an issue is increasingly important to the European Union. Although welfare-conscious husbandry can have economic benefits to the farmer, because a happy animal puts on weight more rapidly and will reproduce more easily, the mere fact that an animal is gaining weight or reproducing does not necessarily indicate a high level of animal welfare. Generally there is a tension between the minimum acceptable level of animal welfare for the consumer, the price of the product, and an acceptable margin for the farmer. This tension is resolved by food labelling that enables the consumer to select the price they are prepared to pay for a given level of animal welfare. So for example, many consumers prefer to buy free range eggs even where these are more expensive than eggs from battery hens. Nowadays, there are various welfare assurance schemes in response to consumer pressure. [Notes 3] [140] [141] [142] The use of battery cages in now illegal in the European Union, due to the severe impacts the cages can have on the well-being of hens. [143]

Organic farming Edit

Organic farming is farming without chemical fertilisers, most pesticides, genetic modification, or the routine use of drugs, antibiotics or wormers. In the United Kingdom it is supported and encouraged by the Soil Association. The Food Standards Agency says that organic food offers no additional nutritional benefits over the non-organic kind, though the Soil Association disputes this. However, there are definite benefits in terms of on-farm conservation and wildlife. In the UK as in most of northern Europe, organic crop yields can be 40%–50% lower than conventional, more intensive farming and labour use can be 10%–25% higher. [144] [145] [146] [147] [148]

The Organic Aid Scheme came into effect in 1994, providing grants to fund farmers wishing to convert to organic farming. By the end of 1997 about 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) had been converted under the scheme, at a cost of £750,000. In 2000 it increased to 525,000 hectares (1,300,000 acres), and between 1996 and 2000, the number of organic farms increased from 865 to 3500. The global market for organic food is worth £1.2 billion a year and is increasing. The UK's share of the European organic farming market is about 10%. [149] [150] [151] [152]

Biofuel Edit

Biofuels are fuels derived from biomass. They can be used in their pure form to power vehicles, but most commonly they are blended with traditional fuels such as diesel. In 2003, the European Union saw biofuels as an answer to several problems: climate change, energy security and stimulating the rural economy, and agreed the Biofuels Directive to see that production was kickstarted. In 2008, the Gallagher Review expressed concern about the effects of the biofuels initiative and identified the conversion of agricultural land to biofuels production as a factor in rising food prices. The current recommended option is that farmers should use marginal or waste land to produce biofuels and maintain production of food on prime agricultural land. [153]

The Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation ("RTFO") obliges fuel suppliers to see that a certain proportion of the fuel they sell comes from renewable sources. The target for 2009/10 is 3.25% by volume. This presents a potentially useful source of revenue for some farmers. [154]

Biofuel crops grown in the UK include oilseed rape (which is also grown for other purposes), short-rotation coppices such as poplar or willow, and miscanthus. Unfortunately biofuels are quite bulky for their energy yield, which means processing into fuel needs to happen near where the crop is grown otherwise, most or all of the benefit of biofuels can be lost in transporting the biofuel to the processing area. Such local processing units are not generally available in the UK, and further expansion of this market will depend on politics and industrial finance. [155]

Diversification Edit

About half of all farmers in the United Kingdom supplement their income through diversification. On average diversification adds £10,400 to a farm's revenue. [156]

Since time immemorial, sporting rights over farmland for hunting or trapping game have had commercial value nowadays, game shooting, deer stalking and fishing are important features within the UK economy. [157] [158] Fox hunting previously went on, but has been banned in the United Kingdom since February 2005. [159] [160]

There are a huge number of ways of diversifying. Farmland may, for example, be converted to equestrian facilities, amenity parkland, country clubs, hotels, golf courses, camping and caravan sites. Farmers open shops, restaurants and even pubs to sell their products. The Farm Diversification Benchmarking Study, which was commissioned by DEFRA and carried out by Exeter University in conjunction with the University of Plymouth, found that 65% of full-time farming businesses had diversified, but in the June census of the preceding year (2003), the estimate was 19% of full-time farming businesses. The large discrepancy is probably because the census data excluded the letting or subletting of buildings. The most common kinds of diversification are probably letting of barns as warehouses and storage, letting of former farm labourers' cottages (whether as holiday cottages or on longer leases) and farm shops. The number of farm shops in the UK increased by more than 50% between 1999 and 2003. [161] [162]

There is grant funding available for diversification schemes, as well as other initiatives to improve competitiveness in the farming sector, through the Rural Development Programme for England. The scheme runs until 2013, is managed through Defra and has been delivered to date through Regional Development Agencies. Expenditure on the Rural Development Programme for England will remain around £3.7 billion for the 2007–13 programme period, compared with the original planned budget of about £3.9 billion. [163]

Custodianship Edit

It was first suggested that farmers could be paid for "producing countryside" in 1969, but the real beginning of positive agri-environmental policy came with the Agriculture Act 1986. The Countryside Stewardship Scheme and local equivalents were run by the Countryside Commission and the Countryside Council for Wales from 1991 until 1996, when they came under ministry control. Nowadays schemes to encourage farmers to think about wildlife conservation and to farm in an environmentally friendly way abound, though actual payments to farmers to support this are comparatively modest. [164]

When EU subsidy regime changes in 2013, farmers will receive a greater proportion of their payments from "management of natural resources and climate action." This forms one of the three "principal objectives" of the reformed Common Agricultural Policy which is under consultation until March 2012. [165] [166] [167]

Barriers to entry Edit

In the 1930s land with vacant possession cost an average of £60 per hectare. In 1996 it cost £8,795 per hectare. In the same period retail prices rose by a factor of 35, but agricultural land prices rose by a factor of well over 100. The most extreme change was in 1972, during which year the price per acre more than doubled. Today farming land remains scarce and much in demand, and the market is still rising even in the current recession. Thus the only option for someone who lacks capital for land purchase but wants to farm is to rent land as a tenant farmer. Rents increased by 24% in the year to 25 March 2011. The average across all farms in England, Wales and Scotland is now £70/acre, up from £57/acre dairy farms cost £80 per acre on average, and arable farms now cost £99 per acre. [168] [169] [170] [171]

Historically tenant farmers, as peasants or villeins, had been exploited and starting in 1875, successive governments enacted legislation to protect them. This trend culminated in the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986, [Notes 4] which consolidated and built on a century-long trend in the law. This Act was so onerous towards landlords that they were reluctant to let land. It became so hard to obtain a tenancy that the farming industry supported reform, which was enacted in the Agricultural Tenancies Act 1995. Nowadays most new tenancies in England and Wales are Farm Business Tenancies under the 1995 Act, but the 1986 Act tenancies that are still in force may allow for succession, and can sometimes be passed down through up to two generations of tenant. The most common route of entry into farming is to succeed to a holding, whether as owner or tenant, so a person's ability to farm is often determined by their family background rather than their skills or qualifications. [172]

County farms Edit

Local government authorities have powers under the Smallholdings and Allotments Act to buy and rent land to people who want to become farmers. [173] Fifty County Councils and Unitary Authorities in England and Wales offer tenancies on smallholdings (called "County Farms") as an entry route into agriculture, but this provision is shrinking. Between 1984 and 2006, the amount of land available as County Farms shrank from 137,664 hectares (340,180 acres) to 96,206 hectares (237,730 acres), a reduction of 30%. The number of tenants on these smallholdings shrank by 58% in the same period to about 2,900. County Farms yielded an operational surplus of £10.6 million to local authorities in the financial year 2008–9. Some local authorities dispose of County Farms to obtain capital receipts. Somerset County Council proposes to sell 35 of its 62 County Farms. [174] [175]

As of March 2009, 39% of County Farms were of 50 acres (20 ha) or smaller, 31% of 50 acres (20 ha) to 100 acres (40 ha) and 30% of 100 acres (40 ha) or more. [176]

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New Census of Agriculture Shows Decline in Number of America’s Farms, Farmers, and Farmland

The 2017 Census of Agriculture released yesterday shows an across-the-board drop in the number of farms, farmers, and farmland in the United States. Land in farms declined from 914,527,657 acres in 2012 to 900,217,576 acres in 2017, while the number of farms and “primary producers” decreased from 2,109,303 in 2012 to 2,042,220 in 2017. This news has serious implications for food production, our environment, and the next generation of farmers.

As with each Census of Agriculture, American Farmland Trust starts our analysis with the land. Farmland and ranchland are the critical infrastructure—the same as our roads, bridges, and highways—upon which agriculture depends. Next, we always take a deep dive to look at who farms the land because AFT recognizes that without the farmers there is no agriculture. Here are a few key takeaways we’ve seen so far:

Land in Farms

  • Fewer acres of land in farms: Down 14,310,081 acres (a two percent drop)
  • Most states saw a decline: 34 states experienced a reduction in land in farms
  • Biggest acre losses: Texas, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and California
  • Largest percentage decreases: Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts—four of the five reported double-digit percentage decreases
  • Little change in share of land devoted to agriculture: Land in farms hovers at 40 percent of the nation’s land area
  • The good news is complicated: 16 states experienced upticks in land in farms amid the nationwide decline. We’ll be looking to see if increases in land in farms coincide with increases in the number of farms, producer, or beginning producers.

Farmers (i.e., Producers)

In the 2017 Census of Agriculture, USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, or NASS, changed the way it reports on individuals’ roles in farm operations to do a better job capturing their contributions. This led to more people being identified as “producers,” (which now replaces “operators” in Census lingo) and a jump in the number of beginning producers. But despite the apparent growth in new and beginning producers, all producers are getting older, and the number of young producers inched up less than two percent. Highlights include:

  • More producers (equivalent to all operators): Up 6.9 percent from 2012 to 3,399,834
  • Fewer primary producers (comparable to principal operators): Down from 2,109,303 in 2012 to 2,042,220 in 2017
  • Beginners are on the rise: The 908,274 new and beginning producers based on 10 year or less of experience on any farm who now account for 26.7 percent of all producers and the 472,360 new and beginning primary producers based on 10 years or less of experience on any farm represent 23.1 percent of all primary producers. It’s hard to make direct comparisons to 2012 because NASS used different experience ranges and sometimes only counted experience on the operator’s present farm (versus any farm). But another current measure of new and beginning producers based on less than 10 years of experience on their present farm counted 510,536 new and beginning producers among primary producers, up a healthy 9 percent from a comparable number in 2012.
  • Beginners still come in all ages: 32 percent of all new and beginning producers are 55 and older
  • Farmers are aging: The average age of all producers climbed to 57.5 years and the average age of primary producers hit 59.4
  • The proportion of senior farmers is growing: There are more than six times as many primary producers age 65 and older as primary producers 34 and younger
  • Slight uptick in primary producers: Producers 34 and younger inched up from 119,833 in 2012 to 121,754 in 2017

Farms Under Threat

Here’s something else to keep in mind: The census doesn’t track what happens to land that is no longer counted as part of a farm or how land was used prior to being identified as part of a farm. This means that decreases in land in farms don’t equal conversion, and gains can happen in places where farmland and ranchland is being lost to development. This can be confusing and make people think we don’t have a problem. AFT launched Farms Under Threat, an analysis of the location, quantity, type, and quality of agricultural land lost to development, to help people understand what’s happening to our farmland. We’ll use new data from the census to inform our spatial analyses.

Farm Labor

ERS provides information on a range of farm labor issues, including:

    (self-employed versus hired) of hired farmworkers, including age, sex, and nativity of hired farmworkers of hired farmworkers of total gross revenues (AEWR) of hired farmworkers (crop agriculture only)

Finally, we provide links to key data sources with summaries.

Size and Composition of the U.S. Agricultural Workforce

The U.S. agricultural workforce has long consisted of a mixture of two groups of workers: (1) self-employed farm operators and their family members, and (2) hired workers. Both types of employment were in long-term decline from 1950 to 1990, as mechanization contributed to rising agricultural productivity, reducing the need for labor. Since 1990, employment levels have stabilized.

The reduction in self-employed and family labor through 1990 was more rapid than the decline in hired labor. According to data from the Farm Labor Survey (FLS) of USDA's National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS), the number of self-employed and family farmworkers declined from 7.60 million in 1950 to 2.01 million in 1990, a 74-percent reduction. Over this same period, average annual employment of hired farmworkers—including on-farm support personnel and those who work for farm labor contractors—declined from 2.33 million to 1.15 million, a 51-percent reduction. As a result, the proportion of hired workers has increased over time.

The rest of this page describes the employment, earnings, demographic characteristics, and other information for the hired farm labor force only. (Information on the well-being of the self-employed farmers and their families may be found on the ERS topic page on Farm Household Well-being.)

Hired farmworkers make up less than 1 percent of all U.S. wage and salary workers, but they play an essential role in U.S. agriculture. According to data from the 2017 Census of Agriculture, wages and salaries plus contract labor costs represented just 12 percent of production expenses for all farms, but 43 percent for greenhouse and nursery operations and 39 percent for fruit and tree nut operations.

Hired farmworkers are found in a variety of occupations, including field crop workers, nursery workers, livestock workers, graders and sorters, agricultural inspectors, supervisors, and hired farm managers. The majority are wage and salary workers, hired directly by farmers, but some are employees of agricultural service companies, including farm labor contractors, custom harvest providers, and management service providers. Many industrywide employment estimates also include support personnel on farms, such as human resource managers, sales agents, and truck drivers.

Many hired farmworkers are foreign-born people from Mexico and Central America, with many lacking authorization to work legally in the United States. In recent years, farmworkers have become more settled, fewer migrating long distances from home to work, and fewer pursuing seasonal follow-the-crop migration. The number of young, recent immigrants working in agriculture has also fallen, and as a result the farm workforce is aging. Over the past 30 years, wages for hired farmworkers have gradually risen, both in real terms and in relation to wages for the average nonsupervisory worker in a nonfarm occupation.

Hired farmworkers are employed in both metro (urban) and nonmetro (rural) counties. The statistics presented here refer to farmworkers nationwide, unless otherwise indicated.

Recent Trends in the Employment of Hired Farmworkers

According to data from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW), wage and salary employment in agriculture—including those in support industries such as farm labor contracting—stabilized in the 2000s and has been on a gradual upward trend since 2010, rising from 1.07 million in 2010 to 1.18 million in 2019, a gain of 11 percent.

From 2010-19, growth was fastest in crop support services (which added 56,600 jobs, a 20-percent increase) and in the livestock sector (which added 39,400 jobs, an 18-percent increase). It should be noted that the QCEW is based on unemployment insurance records, not on surveys of farms or households. As a result, it does not cover smaller farm employers in those States that exempt such employers from participation in the unemployment insurance system. However, survey data sources, such as the American Community Survey and the Current Population Survey, also find rising farm employment since the turn of the century.

​ Demographic Characteristics of Hired Farmworkers

Demographic information on farmworkers can be found in the American Community Survey (ACS) from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. These data also allow us to distinguish among manual laborers, managers/supervisors, and other occupations in the industry. Farm laborers have lower levels of educational attainment, are more likely to be Hispanic of Mexican origin, and are less likely to be citizens than are workers in other occupations in agriculture and than the U.S. wage and salary workforce as a whole.

Demographic characteristics of hired farmworkers and all wage and salary workers, 2018
Item Farm laborers, graders and sorters Farm managers, inspectors, and supervisors All other occupations in agriculture Agriculture: All occupations All U.S. private wage and salary workers
Percent female 25 13 32 26 45
Average age in years 39 43 42 40 40
Percent under age 25 22 13 15 19 18
Percent over age 44 38 46 47 41 41
Percent married 47 61 52 51 48
Percent White, not Hispanic 32 64 59 43 60
Percent Black, not Hispanic 3 3 5 3 12
Percent other, not Hispanic 2 3 3 2 9
Percent Hispanic: Mexican origin 57 27 28 45 12
Percent Hispanic: Other 7 3 6 6 7
Percent born in U.S. (includes Puerto Rico) 45 76 75 57 80
Percent U.S. citizens 54 84 83 65 90
Percent lacking high school diploma 48 24 20 38 9
Percent with high school diploma (includes equivalency) 32 31 33 32 29
Percent with at least some college 20 45 47 30 62
Note: Counts all private sector wage and salary workers employed in the crop, livestock, and agricultural support industries.
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service analysis of data from U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, American Community Survey, 2018.

Differences in demographics are also evident between crop and livestock workers (not shown in table). A larger share of laborers in crops and related support industries are female (28 percent versus 20 percent in livestock). Crop laborers are also less likely to be non-Hispanic White (25 percent versus 48 percent for livestock), and less likely to have been born in the United States (39 percent for crop workers in manual labor occupations versus 60 percent for manual livestock workers). Finally, crop laborers have lower levels of educational attainment: 52 percent lack a high school degree, compared with 37 percent in livestock.

Notably, the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), discussed below, finds larger shares of foreign-born, Hispanic, and less educated employees among crop and support workers than does the ACS (livestock workers are not surveyed in NAWS). For example, NAWS estimates that in Fiscal Years 2015-16, just 25 percent of crop farm workers in manual labor occupations were U.S. born, compared with 39 percent in the ACS.

The Hired Farm Workforce Is Aging

As fewer young immigrants are entering agriculture, the average age of foreign-born farmworkers has risen, pulling up the average for the farm workforce as a whole. The average age of immigrant farmworkers rose by 5 years between 2008 and 2018. In contrast, the average age for U.S.-born farmworkers has remained roughly constant over this period.

Women Are an Increasing Share of the Hired Farm Workforce

The share of farmworkers who are women declined in 2006-09, from 20.3 percent to 18.6 percent, but has since climbed to 25.5 percent (in 2018). The fact that the female share fell during the Great Recession and has risen during the recovery is consistent with men moving into agriculture as employment in the nonfarm economy declines, and out of agriculture as nonfarm job prospects improve. The rising female share is also consistent with the fact that, as labor costs rise, some growers are adopting mechanical aids (such as hydraulic platforms that replace ladders in tree-fruit harvesting, and mobile conveyor belts that reduce the distance heavy loads must be carried) which facilitate more women and older workers in performing tasks that traditionally have been performed by younger men.

Geographic Distribution of Hired Farmworkers (By Place of Residence)

Sixty percent of hired farmworkers reside in counties that are defined as metro (urban). This largely reflects the fact that most of the main farming areas in California, Arizona, and other Western States lie in large counties that also include major cities and thus are defined as metropolitan. Significant numbers of farmworkers are also found in metro counties in the Great Lakes States (East North Central division) and in the South Atlantic.

Wages of Hired Farmworkers

According to data from the FLS, real (inflation-adjusted) wages for nonsupervisory crop and livestock workers (excluding contract labor) rose at an average annual rate of 1.1 percent per year between 1990 and 2019. In the past 5 years, however, real farm wages grew at 2.8 percent per year, consistent with growers' reports that workers were harder than usual to find.

In 1990, the average real farm wage for nonsupervisory crop and livestock workers was just over half the average real wage in the nonfarm economy for private-sector nonsupervisory occupations ($9.8 versus $19.40). By 2019, the farm wage ($13.99) was equal to 60 percent of the nonfarm wage ($23.51). In other words, the gap between farm and nonfarm wages is slowly shrinking, but still substantial.

Wages for nonsupervisory occupations varied little across occupations, ranging from $13.03 (for graders and sorters) to $14.61 (for equipment operators). For all but one of these nonsupervisory occupations, however, wages were more than 5 percent higher in 2019 than in 2018 (not adjusted for inflation).

Average hourly wages for hired agricultural managers stood at $24.77 in 2019, up 6.2 percent from the year before. Supervisors averaged $21.34 per hour, up 4.9 percent.

Average wages by occupation, 2019
Occupation SOC code Employment share 2019 (percent) Average hourly wage 2019 Nominal wage growth, 2018-19 (percent change)
Graders and sorters, agricultural products (45-2041) 2 13.03 0.7
Agricultural equipment operators (45-2091) 16 14.61 5.2
Farmworkers, crop, nursery, and greenhouse (45-2092) 42 13.96 5.9
Farmworkers, farm, ranch, and aquacultural (45-2093) 23 13.61 5.0
Agricultural workers, all other (45-2099) 2 14.18 5.5
Packers and packagers, hand (53-7064) 2 14.22 14.1
Subtotal, nonsupervisory farmworkers 87 13.98 5.6
Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers (11-9013) 3 24.77 6.2
First-line supervisors (45-1011) 3 21.34 4.9
Subtotal, supervisory and nonsupervisory occupations 94 14.61 5.7
All other farm occupations 6 19.52 -1.3
All farm occupations 100 14.91 5.2
Note: SOC = Standard Occupational Classification (SOC).
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service using data from USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Farm Labor Survey. As of 2012, the survey no longer counts contracted agricultural service workers.

Labor Cost Share of Total Gross Revenues

Although farm wages are rising in nominal and real terms, the impact of these rising costs on farmers' incomes has been offset by rising productivity and/or output prices. As a result, labor costs as a share of gross cash income do not show an upward trend for the industry as a whole over the past 20 years. For all farms, labor costs (including contract labor, and cash fringe benefit costs) averaged 10.4 percent of gross cash income during 2016-18, compared with 10.7 percent for 1996-98.

However, these trends in labor cost shares differ by commodity. Labor cost shares have fallen slightly over the past 20 years for the more labor-intensive fruit and vegetable sectors, although they appear to have been trending upwards again in the past few years. On dairies and in nursery operations, both of which also rely heavily on immigrant labor, labor costs as a share of income are at or near their 20-year highs.

H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program

The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program—often called the H-2A visa program—provides a legal means to bring foreign-born workers to the United States to perform seasonal farm labor on a temporary basis, for a period of up to 10 months. Crop farmers can use this program to meet their seasonal labor needs, but most livestock producers, such as ranches, dairies, and hog and poultry operations, are not legally allowed to use the program to meet year-round labor needs. An exception to this restriction is made for producers of livestock on the range, such as sheep and goat operations, who can use H-2A workers year-round.

Employers in the H-2A program must demonstrate, and the U.S. Department of Labor must certify, that efforts to recruit U.S. workers were not successful. Employers must also pay a State-specific minimum wage, which may not be lower than the average wage for crop and livestock workers surveyed in the FLS in that region in the prior year, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR). (See the next section for details on the AEWR.) In addition, employers must provide housing for their H-2A workers and pay for their domestic and international transportation.

One of the clearest indicators of the scarcity of farm labor is the fact that the number of H-2A positions requested and approved has increased fivefold in the past 14 years, from just over 48,000 positions certified in fiscal 2005 to nearly 258,000 in Fiscal Year (FY) 2019. The average duration of an H-2A certification in FY 2019 was 5.3 months, implying that the 258,000 positions certified represented approximately 114,000 full-year equivalents.

Adverse Effect Wage Rate

H-2A employers must provide transportation and housing and pay the higher of the applicable State or federal minimum wage, the prevailing wage in that region and occupation, as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor, or the regional average farm wage observed in the NASS FLS. The latter is known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), reflecting the legal requirement that H-2A employment should not negatively affect domestic farmworkers by lowering the average wage. For FY 2020, this minimum hourly wage ranged from $11.71 (in Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina) to $15.83 (in Oregon and Washington).

Legal Status and Migration Practices of Hired Crop Farmworkers

Legal immigration status is difficult to measure: not many surveys ask the question, and unauthorized respondents may be reluctant to answer truthfully if asked. The U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) provides data on farmworkers' legal immigration status. NAWS data, believed to be of high quality, is gathered by trained and trusted enumerators who conduct face-to-face interviews with workers at their job sites and with their employers’ permission. NAWS also queries workers on their inter- and intranational migration patterns. One limitation of the NAWS, however, is that it excludes the growing number of H-2A workers, as well as all hired livestock workers.

Roughly Half of Hired Crop Farmworkers Lack Legal Immigration Status

The share of hired crop farmworkers who were not legally authorized to work in the United States grew from roughly 14 percent in 1989-91 to almost 55 percent in 1999-2001 in recent years it has been just under 50 percent. In 2014-16, 27 percent of crop farmworkers were U.S. born, 4 percent were immigrants who had obtained U.S. citizenship, 21 percent were other authorized immigrants (primarily permanent residents or green-card holders), and the remaining 48 percent held no work authorization. The share of workers who are U.S. born is highest in the Midwest, while the share who are unauthorized is highest in California.

More Farmworkers Are Settled, Fewer Are Migrants

More than 80 percent of hired crop farmworkers are not migrant workers but are considered settled, meaning that they work at a single location within 75 miles of their home. This share is up from 41 percent in 1996-98, reflecting a profound change in the nature of the crop farm workforce.

Among the small share of remaining migrant workers, the largest group is "shuttlers," who work at a single farm location more than 75 miles from home and may cross an international border to get to their worksite. Shuttlers made up about 10 percent of hired crop farmworkers in 2014-16, down from about 24 percent in 1996-98.

More common in the past, the "follow the crop" migrant farmworker, who moves from State to State working on different crops as the seasons advance, is now a relative rarity. These workers made up just 5 percent of those surveyed by the NAWS in 2014-16, down from a high of 14 percent in 1992-94.

The final category of hired crop farmworkers is newcomers to farming, whose migration patterns have not yet been established. The fact that they now represent just 3 percent of the crop farm workforce, down from as much as 22 percent in 1998-2000, in part reflecting the slowdown in net migration from Mexico to the United States since 2007.

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Highlights are topical, timely, and easy-to-read summaries of key findings from the Census of Agriculture and from one or more surveys.

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  • 2017 Soybeans Chemical Use
  • 2017 Cotton Chemical Use
  • Prices U.S. Farmers Received and Paid, 2007-2017
  • 2018 Crop Highlights (based on January 2018 Reports)
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  • Prices U.S. Farmers Received and Paid, 2006 – 2016
  • 2012 Census - Direct Farm Sales of Food
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  • 2012 Census - Small Farms
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  • U.S. Hog Industry, 1994-2014
  • 2012 Census - U.S. Horticulture in 2014
  • 2014 Vegetable Chemical Use
  • 2012 Census - Vegetable Production
  • 2012 Census - Fruits, Tree Nuts, and Berries
  • 2012 Census - Organic Farming in 2014
  • 2012 Census - Puerto Rico Agriculture
  • 2012 Census - Agricultura de Puerto Rico
  • 2015 Agricultural Land Values and Cash Rents
  • 2014 Fall Potato Chemical Use
  • 2014 Corn Chemical Use
  • 2012 Census - Farmland Ownership and Tenure
  • 2012 Census - Family Farms
  • 2012 Census - Wheat Farming
  • 2012 Census - Soybean Farming
  • 2012 Census - Sorghum Farming
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  • 2014 Agricultural Land Values and Cash Rents
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Social Impact

The increase in the food supply contributed to the rapid growth of population in England and Wales, from 5.5 million in 1700 to over 9 million by 1801, although domestic production gave way increasingly to food imports in the 19th century as population more than tripled to over 32 million. The rise in productivity accelerated the decline of the agricultural share of the labor force, adding to the urban workforce on which industrialization depended. The Agricultural Revolution has therefore been cited as a cause of the Industrial Revolution. As enclosure deprived many of access to land or left farmers with plots too small and of poor quality, increasing numbers of workers had no choice but migrate to the city. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, however, rural flight occurred in mostly localized regions. Pre-industrial societies did not experience large rural-urban migration flows, primarily due to the inability of cities to support large populations. Lack of large employment industries, high urban mortality, and low food supplies all served as checks keeping pre-industrial cities much smaller than their modern counterparts. While the improved agricultural productivity freed up workers to other sectors of the economy, it took decades of the Industrial Revolution and industrial development to trigger a truly mass rural-to-urban labor migration. As food supplies increased and stabilized and industrialized centers moved into place, cities began to support larger populations, sparking the beginning of rural flight on a massive scale. In England, the proportion of the population living in cities jumped from 17% in 1801 to 72% in 1891.

Drawing of a horse-powered thresher from a French dictionary (published in 1881).

The development and advancement of tools and machines decreased the demand for rural labor. That together with increasingly restricted access to land forced many rural workers to migrate to cities, eventually supplying the labor demand created by the Industrial Revolution.

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After treaties with the American Indians and federal legislation opened up Oklahoma lands for settlement between 1889 and 1906, agriculture developed very rapidly. Although the Indians in eastern Oklahoma had done some farming, mainly by leasing their lands to white tenants, farming in Oklahoma did not become very important until after 1889. Following the Land Run of April 22, 1889, when thousands of people rushed into the Unassigned Lands, agriculture moved swiftly toward becoming the basis of the Oklahoma economy. As the president of the State Board of Agriculture wrote in 1907, "agriculture is, and will be for years to come if not forever, the leading industry in our State." His prediction was partially correct, because agriculture was the state's leading industry well into the twentieth century.

The pioneer settlers who pushed quickly into Oklahoma Territory to establish farms on free or cheap land did not have an easy time. Confronted by periodic droughts, low prices for crops and livestock, lack of capital, and other problems, they struggled to get a firm foothold on the land. Many of them initially lived in sod houses or dugouts and provided most of their own subsistence by growing garden vegetables, milking a few cows, butchering their own meat, and raising a few acres of corn. Times were so difficult and farmers so desperate in 1891, because of the severe drought in parts of the territory, that the railroads provided some seed grain so farmers could plant a crop.

Despite the hardships endured in the early years of settlement, the federal census reported that between 1890 and 1900 the number of farms increased from 8,826 to 108,000. By 1910, when the census was taken after statehood, the number had jumped to 190,192. Of this number 13,209 farms were operated by African American farmers. In fewer than twenty years the area that became Oklahoma added about 180,000 farms to the nation's total. This was one of the most rapidly settled agricultural frontiers in American history. After 1910 the number of farms in Oklahoma remained about the same for a generation, between 190,000 and 210,000, until a steady drop began in the late 1930s.

Oklahoma farmers produced a wide variety of crops including corn, cotton, winter wheat, oats, milo maize, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts, broomcorn, cowpeas, alfalfa, wild hay, and others. They also produced and sold poultry, eggs, cheese, butter, and garden and orchard products. The main crops by acreage and value, however, were corn, cotton, and winter wheat.

Corn was an ideal crop for a largely self-sufficient family in the early years of settlement. It was easy to raise and was valuable as both a feed for livestock and food for the family table. A farm wife could prepare grits, cornbread, and other foods from cornmeal, ground at home or at a local mill. Most farmers planted some corn, and by 1910 more than five million acres were grown. This was more than twice as much as any other crop.

Cotton was Oklahoma's leading money crop, and production increased rapidly after about 1900. A decade later cotton farmers produced 923,000 bales on 2,324,000 acres. In the first decade of the twentieth century cotton growing was concentrated in central and southwestern counties of the state. In 1907 Lincoln County had thousands of acres of cotton, and some was grown in Woodward and surrounding counties. By 1910 Oklahoma ranked sixth among the cotton-producing states with a crop value of $61.8 million, as compared to the value of the corn crop of $47.8 million and wheat of $22.2 million.

The growing emphasis on cotton, however, raised serious questions among some of the state's leaders because of the system's effect on farm families. J. P. Connors, president of the State Board of Agriculture, wrote in 1908 that by concentrating on cotton, instead of diversifying their crops and raising livestock, farmers became trapped in a destructive credit system. As early as 1910 some 54 percent of Oklahoma farmers were tenants, and tenancy was even higher among cotton farmers. The rate was highest among African American sharecroppers. Connors did not advise against planting cotton but urged farmers to diversify and raise as much of their own living as possible.

Representatives of the newly established agricultural college at Stillwater (Oklahoma A&M, now Oklahoma State University), directors of the Agricultural Experiment Stations, and editors of farm publications were among others who urged farmers to diversify their operations. Farmers were advised to attend conferences and institutes to gain better knowledge of how they might improve their income and of how farm wives could increase their contribution to the family welfare. For example, in 1916 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that farm women in Bryan County experienced greater success in dairying and raising poultry under the guidance of a home demonstration agent. Despite the effort to better educate farmers and improve life on the family farm, many farmers were either unwilling or unable to make the recommended changes. This was especially the case in locations where cotton was the principal crop.

By the eve of World War I Oklahoma farmers had established an agricultural pattern that would persist for another generation. Wheat growing rapidly expanded in the central and northwestern parts of the state while corn acreage steadily declined. By 1920 only a little more than half as much corn was planted as in 1910. Wheat acreage, on the other hand, more than doubled in that decade. As farmers pushed farther west into the drier parts of the state, especially the Panhandle, where rainfall averaged less than twenty inches annually, they planted more drought-resistant sorghum crops such as milo maize and sorghum.

By 1920 the average size Oklahoma farm was 166 acres. However, there were huge variations in size. The largest category of farms, or 34 percent, was from 100 to 174 acres, the traditional 160-acre homestead. However, there were thousands under fifty acres, many of them operated by white and black sharecroppers. The large farms, those of more than 260 acres, made up about 14 percent of the total. Most of the state's farms were family enterprises in which the operator used horse and mule power to pull their plows, cultivators, and other machinery. A few large wheat farmers were beginning to adopt tractors and combines, but full-scale tractor farming was still in the future. Farm families provided much of their own living, especially outside the main cotton-producing areas, and most of their own labor. Men and sometimes women, as well as children, worked in the fields, milked cows, and did other chores. Women tended gardens, raised chickens, made and sold butter, and marketed eggs. Their work contributed greatly to the economic condition of residents. The federal census of 1920 reported that on the average Oklahoma farm families provided 57 percent of their own food.

Oklahoma's 194,000 farmers were just beginning to be exposed to modern conveniences by 1920. Only 4 percent had electricity, 1 percent owned trucks, and 3 percent had acquired tractors to replace or supplement horse and mule power. However, an increasing number of farmers were becoming better connected to the larger world: 25 percent had automobiles, and 37 percent enjoyed telephones. Overall, it was still the horse-and-wagon and dirt-road period of farming in the Sooner State. The benefits of electricity, running water, and indoor bathroom facilities were still nearly a generation away for most.

The deflation and severe drop in farm prices that began in late 1920 severely affected all of American agriculture. Oklahoma farmers were among those hardest hit. The prices of cotton, wheat, and livestock, the main sources of agricultural income, drastically dropped. Between 1919 and 1920 cotton prices declined from thirty-five cents a pound to twelve cents wheat brought only half as much in 1921 as it had in 1919. The cost of things farmers had to buy did not drop in proportion to those of farm prices, which created what the economists called a cost-price squeeze.

These conditions intensified a spirit of political unrest and radicalism among Oklahoma farmers who believed that the large corporate and financial institutions had become their oppressors. There had been a substantial number of discontented farmers even before 1907 statehood. Some of them had joined the Socialist Party, which advocated state-operated enterprises such as a state bank and state-owned grain elevators, warehouses, and other facilities that Socialists believed could serve farmers better and at lower costs. Farmers complained loudly about high interest rates, especially those charged to tenants and sharecroppers. In some cases interest rates were as high as 40 percent a year on loans. Many farmers in Oklahoma voted for Fred W. Holt, the Socialist Party candidate for governor in 1914, when the party polled about fifty-two thousand votes. Farmers also joined the Nonpartisan League in 1918 and demanded that the state establish state-owned marketing facilities to help farmers.

Given this background of protest, it is not surprising that financially depressed farmers were the most numerous supporters of the Oklahoma Farmer-Labor Reconstruction League, and of Jack Walton, the organization's candidate for governor in 1922. The league's legislative goals called for much the same program advocated by the Socialists. Farmers believed that state-owned enterprises would help their economic situation. While the farm vote helped Walton win the governorship, he was unable to push any of the league's programs through the legislature and was eventually impeached. Farmers were left without any assistance from state government. John A. Simpson, a leader in the Oklahoma Farmers' Union and later president of the National Farmers Union, was the most active and influential farm spokesperson in Oklahoma.

Better prices by 1923 and 1924 for both wheat and cotton reduced farm discontent, although life on thousands of Oklahoma farms was a struggle. There were a few good years in the 1920s but also some very bad ones for commercial farmers. In 1925 cotton farmers planted 5.2 million acres of cotton and produced 1,691,000 bales that brought seventeen cents a pound. But the next year a huge crop drove prices down to only nine cents a pound. Wheat prices were also good in 1925, bringing $1.40 a bushel, but within a couple of years it was only a dollar a bushel. In short, the extreme changes in the price of farm crops and livestock were hard on farm income. Moreover, both interest rates and taxes continued to be high. By 1930, 61 percent of Oklahoma's farmers were tenants, and in some counties tenancy was as high as 70 percent.

However hard the economic struggle was for farmers in the agricultural depression of the 1920s, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and 1930 created even worse conditions. By 1931 and 1932 farm commodity prices had dropped to disastrous levels. The farm price of the huge cotton crop of 1931 fell to about five cents a pound, and wheat brought as little as thirty cents a bushel. Prices of other crops and livestock also dropped. Peanuts, which had become an important crop for some farmers in the southwestern part of the state, declined to as low as $1.60 for one hundred pounds, or about one and one-half cents a pound. The gross income of all Oklahoma farm production, both crops and livestock, dropped from $314 million in 1929 to $115 million in 1932.

Under these circumstances, what could farm families do? They had tried to improve their position in the economy in the 1920s by forming agricultural cooperatives. They had sought to increase their efficiency through agricultural mechanization by using more and better production equipment. They had appealed for state and federal help, but nothing had brought any relief. About all the USDA could suggest was for farmers to become more self-sufficient. But, according to one writer, farmers had lowered their standard of living "to an extent reminiscent of pioneer days."

Finally, in May 1933 farmers began to see a glimmer of hope through Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal when Congress created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and subsequently enacted other legislation to help farmers. Believing that huge agricultural surpluses were responsible for low prices, the AAA provided Oklahoma's cotton and wheat farmers cash benefit payments in return for reducing their acreage. Producers of some other crops also received federal benefits, and programs were implemented to assist hog and cattle raisers. To bring supply and demand into better balance, farmers plowed under a portion of their growing cotton in the spring of 1933. Drought cut wheat production, but farmers received benefit payments if they promised to reduce acreage in 1934. Federal programs also included better farm credit facilities and payment for certain soil conservation practices. Some farmers also received cash from work relief projects.

Federal programs were very significant in helping Oklahoma farmers get through the Great Depression. For example, in the fall of 1933 the state's wheat growers received $6,840,000 in cash benefit payments, and cotton farmers realized millions more. Cash payments continued through the 1930s and beyond. Because cash payments to farmers of the main crops were made for reducing acreage, the larger operators benefited most from direct government payments. Small farmers, especially sharecroppers, received little help. This left thousands of small family farmers still struggling to survive.

Federal farm programs helped farmers get better prices for their products, but nothing could stop the drought and severe dust storms that struck western Oklahoma between 1933 and 1937. The western and northwestern counties all suffered, but conditions were worst in the Panhandle. The economic catastrophe created by wind, drought, and poor prices caused such distress and financial hardship that thousands abandoned their farms and migrated to California and elsewhere. Many of these migrants left the eastern part of the state as well. The Dust Bowl out-migration was most dramatic between 1935 and 1940 when the number of farms decreased by 33,638. The drought conditions in the 1930s encouraged some farmers in western Oklahoma to turn to irrigation. That area rested on a huge underground aquifer, and by the 1930s deep drilling and pump technology made deep well irrigation practical. A few farmers turned to irrigation before 1950, but land under irrigation expanded quite rapidly in the next thirty years.

The highest number of farms in Oklahoma history, 213,325, was recorded in 1935. These figures reflect some return to the farm by town dwellers who wanted to raise part of their own food or who no longer had an urban job. From 1935 onward, however, the number of farms dramatically declined. Even though during World War II both crops and prices were favorable to farmers, by 1950 Oklahoma had only 142,246 farms. Many of the small operators concluded that they could not make a living, or they found better conditions in nonfarm employment. Even somewhat better living conditions could not keep families "down on the farm." By 1950 Oklahoma's farm population was only 25 percent of the state's total, compared to 50 percent in 1920.

In the late 1930s living conditions on the farm were beginning a major transformation, largely because the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was established in 1935. By 1950 about two-thirds of Oklahoma's farmers had electricity. In addition to electric lights, many farm families began to enjoy running water, bathroom facilities, home freezers, refrigerators, electric washing machines, and other conveniences. By midcentury the better-off farmers experienced about the same home conveniences and standard of living as their town and city cousins.

By 1950 it was clear that a major restructuring was occurring in Oklahoma agriculture. Farms were becoming fewer and larger as the better-capitalized and more efficient producers expanded by renting or buying more land from departing neighbors. From 1950 to 1980 the number of farms dropped from 142,246 to 72,000, and the average size more than doubled from 253 acres to 481 acres. By 1997, the last federal census of agriculture in the twentieth century, Oklahoma reported a few more farms, but this was caused partially by a change in the definition of a farm.

By the 1970s the state's commercial agriculture was concentrated in the hands of relatively few farmers. In 1978 the market value of all farm products sold was $2,367,696,000. Fifty-five percent of that value was produced by only 3,716 farmers and ranchers. These large corporate farms were highly capitalized with huge investments in equipment such as tractors, trucks, grain combines, mechanical cotton pickers, hay balers, and other expensive machines. Farms were significant business enterprises that required not only large amounts of capital but also good management to be successful. In 1997, for example, more than four hundred Oklahoma farmers sold in excess of $500,000 worth of wheat, and 114 of them more than $1 million worth.

Thousands of small farmers had become "sidewalk and suitcase farmers"—part-time or hobby farmers—and derived their main income from off-farm work. Of the 74,214 farms reported in 1997, over half, or 41,154, of the operators listed their main occupation as something other than farming. Only 33,060 listed farming as their principal occupation. Whether it was grain or cotton farming, raising peanuts or sorghums, or raising chickens, hogs, or cattle, the operations were mainly in the hands of large operators. By the end of the century most of the hogs and poultry were raised in confined conditions by a few producers. Despite a growing degree of concentration in agriculture, most farms continued to be family owned. But the successful family farms of the 1990s were dramatically different from those in the years before World War II.

By the 1990s the annual value of Oklahoma's agricultural production annually ranged between $4 billion and $5 billion. In 1997 the figure was $4.1 billion. Of this amount, crops were responsible for $908 million and livestock and poultry products for $3.2 billion. Wheat had become by far the main commercial crop, leading hay, cotton, sorghums, peanuts, and soybeans by a large margin. By the late twentieth century Oklahoma usually ranked second, third, or fourth in the nation in winter wheat production.

While the number of farms and the farm population declined sharply after World War II, agriculture continued to be a major factor in Oklahoma's economy. Farming not only supplied food and fiber for state, national, and world needs, it furnished the raw materials for processing and manufacturing industries that provided consumer goods and nonfarm employment.

By 2000 only a very small percentage of Oklahomans lived on farms. However, the historical experiences of farming and farm life have placed an indelible imprint upon the state and its people. The steady decline of the farm population and agriculture's lessening role in the economy have not eliminated the traits and character associated with strong rural traditions. Hard work, honesty, responsibility, neighborliness, a cohesive family life, and practicality are some of the historic farm traits that have been incorporated into the lives of modern Oklahomans. Indeed, the state's farm experiences have left a permanent mark, not only on its economy, but also on Sooner history and culture that will take generations to erase, if ever.


Gilbert C. Fite, American Agriculture and Farm Policy Since 1900 (New York: Macmillan, 1964).

Gilbert C. Fite, Cotton Fields No More: Southern Agriculture, 1865–1980 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984).

Gilbert C. Fite, The Farmer's Frontier, 1865–1900 (New York: Holt Rinehart, and Winston, 1966).

Donald E. Green, ed., Rural Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1977).

Richard Lowitt, "Farm Crisis in Oklahoma, Part 1," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 89 (Fall 2011), "Part 2," 89 (Winter 2011-12).

Ralph E. Olson, "Agriculture in Oklahoma," in Geography of Oklahoma, ed. John W. Morris (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1977).

U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census of Agriculture (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1890–1997).

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