Fewer and fewer Kansans’ holiday travel will take them past fields where the wheat was grown to make their Thanksgiving meal complete.
Flour for the bread, the pie crust and the stuffing (or dressing if you prefer) comes to you from wheat farmers. But knowledge of farming and appreciation for what it provides us daily are fading as Americans’ direct connections with agriculture disappear.
As more people move into suburbs and urban areas, fewer people live in rural America. And as our nation’s farms grow more efficient and more productive, it takes fewer people to produce ever-more food.
For example, corn fields that produced 40 bushels an acre in 1950 now often produce 170 bushels an acre. Such gains are seen throughout farming and are possible because of advances in technology and science.
They also defy the much ballyhooed political divide that exists between urban and rural America. Few other achievements exemplify the mutually beneficial relationship between rural and urban communities.
For more than a century, scientists — often at universities in urban areas — have been working collaboratively with farmers and ag-related businesses. Together they have developed more drought-resistant varieties of crops; improved the diets of farm animals, and as a result the nutrition they offer to those who consume them; and made numerous other advances.
Those advances are what allow about 450 farmers in Minnesota to produce more than 44 million turkeys every year. If you are having turkey this Thanksgiving, it’s likely from Minnesota, which leads the nation in producing and processing turkeys.
True, some Americans don’t think such advances are a good thing. For decades, Americans have argued about food. Some decry what they call industrialized farming, for example, while others argue that larger farms are often the better environmental choice, providing efficient and affordable means to feed billions of people. Debates about organic food, vegan diets and genetically modified products can be had daily if you’re looking for a food fight.
What such discussions show us is just how good we have it.
Americans have an embarrassment of choices for our food. Grocery stores, health food stores, food cooperatives, online clubs and stores, membership super-centers, discount groceries, farmers markets – the list grows continually.
And it’s all relatively cheap. Americans spend less on their groceries than in most countries.
The numbers have been getting harder to calculate because of our changing lifestyles. Since 2010, Americans have been spending more for food from restaurants than from grocery stores. That’s something of an oversimplification of the figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it gets at the essence of the change.
We eat out, or we bring home food from a restaurant. At the same time many grocery stores are offering lots of ready-to-eat options, from salad bars to fried chicken. That preparation, handling and processing add to our food costs.
The USDA tracks a number of prices and trends to calculate the cost of food and how it’s changing. Here’s an excerpt from a USDA website:
“Over the last two decades, motor fuel and household energy prices have experienced double-digit annual price swings, while food prices have posted annual increases of between 0 and 6 percent, for an average annual increase of 2.4 percent.”
How much families spend on groceries, represented as a percent of their disposable income, correlates to their wealth. The less you make, the bigger the percentage. But on average, according to the USDA, Americans spent about 10 percent of their disposable income on food in 2016, split about evenly between food eaten at home and food eaten outside the home.
About a hundred years ago, the nation’s urban population surpassed its rural population. The demographic split took longer to occur in farming states such as Kansas. But here and elsewhere, the trend has meant that fewer of us have direct ties to the land. As an agriculture professor once explained, with each passing generation, fewer people have direct knowledge about farming and the source of their food.
Even as our individual ties to farming disappear, Americans would be wise to remember just how good their farmers are at growing food.
Julie Doll formerly worked at newspapers in Kansas, California, New York and Indiana. She grew up on a farm in Finney County, and her brothers continue to farm there.