Top 25 things vanishing from America: #1 -- The family farm

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This series explores aspects of America that may soon be just a memory -- some to be missed, some gladly left behind. From the least impactful to the most, here are 25 bits of vanishing America.

My mother grew up on her family's dairy farm in central Oregon, and when she was a child she was in 4-H -- just like all the kids in her town. I've always admired her way with the "home arts" (she makes a mean jar of cucumber relish, and her embroidery festoons quilts for all my boys) so when I saw her 4-H ribbons I assumed that big purple one must have been for brownies, or jam. "Oh, that was for the pig I raised," she said matter-of-factly.

In 1950, it wasn't at all unusual for a bookish little girl like my mother to get a purple ribbon in pig husbandry; after all, our educational system is still organized around the principle that children need to get out to help tend the crops and raise the baby animals in the summers. But, since the 1930s, the number of family farms has been declining rapidly. According to the USDA, 5,382,162 farms dotted the nation in 1950, but this number had declined to 2,121,107 by the 2003 farm census (data from the 2007 census hasn't yet been published). Ninety-one percent of the U.S. farms are small family farms, but the percentage of crop value produced by these farms is only 27%. Large-scale family farms (those with over $250,000 in annual sales) represented most of the farm value produced, but it's worth noting that commercial farms make up just 1.7% of the total but 14% of the value.

The plight of the family farm has been much mourned, with many best-selling authors quoting the Farm Aid statistic that 330 farmers leave their land every week. But all is not lost; the decline in family farms has slowed since the 1970s, and due to the aforementioned bestselling authors and changing priorities of many consumers, the small family farm may very well change the tide.

That tide will have to change fast. Due to the great development boom of the 90s and early years of the millennium, and commercial agricultural practices (think: chemical fertilizers and pesticides, poor crop rotations and intensive irrigation), much land is being lost to farmers -- 3,000 acres are lost to development each day according to EPA data. A bank can foreclose on a whole subdivision, but it can't turn the land back into carrots, potatoes and lettuces.

Update: latest figures show the number of family farms has dropped to2,107,925 by 2004.

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