Less Acreage, Fewer Farmers, Greater Demand

With less lands and fewer hands, North American farmers manage to meet the needs of a hungry planet.

It’s no surprise to those involved in agriculture that North American producers have to do more with less. Consider these statistics: The number of acres in agriculture shrank 6.6% in the U.S. between 1990 and 2007, and 4.4% between 1986 and 2011 in Canada. Meanwhile, the number of farm operators dropped 16% from 1987 to 2007 in the U.S. and 15% from 2001 to 2011 in Canada.

There are also fewer farm workers available in both countries. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the average number of farm workers has dropped by 89,000 over the last two decades, while the U.S Department of Labor predicts a decline of an additional 20,000 agricultural jobs from 2010 to 2020. By last September, some farm crews in California were already as much as 60% short of needed workers, and the situation is similar in Canada. Citing an immediate need, the chair of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council recently stated, “Canadian agriculture is facing a labor shortage of at least 30,000 skilled and unskilled workers.”

These decreases in land and hands are occurring, however, as the global population has increased and, with it, a greater demand for North American farm products. Still, farmers—again, fewer in number, working with less acreage and labor—have managed to meet, and often exceed, the increased demand for food.

That’s in large part, due to an increase in agricultural labor efficiency. According to the USDA, each farmer in 2000 produced on average 12 times as much farm output per hour worked as a farmer did in 1950. Such gains in productivity, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have been aided by a number of factors, including the use of large-scale mechanization, improved crop varieties, commercial fertilizers and pesticides.

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