For more than half a century, American farmers have had a clear mandate: Grow more. In the 1970s, Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz encapsulated the mission by urging them to plant “from fencerow to fencerow” and to “get big or get out.”
These exhortations worked: Total farm output nearly tripled between 1948 and 2019. That happened even as development pressures reduced total U.S. farm acreage by more than 140 million and the number of American farms fell from a peak of 6.8 million in 1935 to just over 2 million today.
In recent years, however, the demands on farmers have grown more complex. Drought, floods and other extreme weather have challenged many of the traditional ways, causing yields to fall. Vast cattle feedlots, chickens crowded in cages and heavy use of chemicals have come under criticism from environmental advocates and consumers. Agricultural policy has gotten caught up in culture wars that have snarled other aspects of American life.
Food inflation has shoppers anxious and quick to blame producers for high prices. Meanwhile, the prices of fertilizers and pesticides have steeply increased in the past few years, as have labor and transportation.
That has led to a crossroads, as farmers, ranchers and agriculture companies ponder what should be grown and what best practices look like for an agrarian system that humans have refined for more than 12,000 years.
[View more: Photos and video document the future of farming in the Netherlands]
Many farmers have doubled down on time-honored traditions, keeping a focus on growth and scale and leaving terms like “climate-smart” and “regenerative” practices to activists and politicians. Some have embraced radical new technologies to reinvent the very definition of a farm. And others look nervously to the future, trying to chart a path to profitability and wondering if their children will, or should, take over the land when they’re gone.
American agriculture is steeped in tradition and identity. One need only to look at state fairs across the country that draw thousands every summer to see young 4-H members compete with their beloved hand-raised calves; to marvel at massive pumpkins and sculptures made of local butter; and to feast on fried delights that reflect productivity, abundance and joy.
Many Americans, including people in rural, conservative communities, see the focus on climate change as another costly distraction cooked up by politicians in Washington — even as almost 40 percent of the Lower 48 states continue to be in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
It’s no wonder that some say the best way to farm is the way it’s always been done, doubling down on techniques and values that have served them for years. According to a recent U.S. Agriculture Department study, only 3 percent of farmers, ranchers and landowners are using available carbon credit programs that pay them to remove carbon dioxide from the air and sequester it in the soil, in part because of limited return on investment and high transaction costs.
Steven Boender talks about “the four F’s”: faith, family, friends and farming. He and his five sons and a daughter farm a lot of acres of corn and soy in central and southeast Iowa. How many? He gently explains it’s a little rude to ask a farmer that, like asking how much money you have.
Boender had his first crop in 1974, when he was a senior in high school. He married his wife, Jan, when he was 18, got a loan, bought machinery and starting farming 15 miles from his parents’ farm. He’s a man firm in his beliefs: free market capitalism, diversification on the farm, doing right by your neighbors. And then there are things he’s not much for.
“I’m not a big climate change guy,” he said. “It’s about my faith — God is in charge of this.”
Tradition is also at the core of the work done by Leighton Cooley, a fourth-generation conventional poultry farmer. Along with his parents, Larry and Terri, he raises cattle, grows hay and oversees 16 broiler houses with a total capacity of 500,000 chickens and an annual production of 6 million birds. The chickens have been sold on contract to Perdue Farms since 2004.
Their Cooley Farms in Roberta, Ga., doesn’t have much connection to all the talk about climate change mitigation, though there’s no question the operation is feeling the pressures, including from changing disease patterns that threaten their chickens with a new virulent strain of avian flu. But for farmers who have tried to do anything more humane, sustainable or climate friendly, “it always ends up coming out of the consumers’ pockets,” Terri said.
People get mad when chicken prices go up, she said. “The name of the game is production and efficiency, doing more with less.”
The tension between old ways and new demands is also evident in the beef industry. Beef is under siege, as many U.S. consumers turn away from burgers and steaks for health reasons and because of the industry’s contribution to climate change (about 12 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are methane, which is generated largely by livestock, the Environmental Protection Agency says).
But as environmentally focused people tout more “sustainable” options, Mike De Groot of TD Beef promotes a different definition — one that centers on profitability achieved largely by being flexible, nimble and feed-efficient.
He and partners Jake and Jason Tuls raise about a quarter-million head of cattle in the Southwest. In big, conventional operations such as TD Beef’s, animals are fed diets of genetically modified corn and soy and live out the ends of their lives in feed lots. This formula has made the United States the biggest producer of beef in the world.
They are at the vanguard of a growing practice of crossbreeding dairy cows with beef cattle. It used to take 25 months to raise a Holstein from birth to slaughter. Now it takes 15 months. That’s 10 months less feed, methane emissions and feces to deal with.
This type of crossbred dairy cow can produce 25,000 pounds of milk, and when her milking days are over, she can be slaughtered for premium beef because of body characteristics that make her meat uniform and desirable for eating.
THE NEW TECH-ADOPTERS
THE NEW TECH-ADOPTERS
THE NEW TECH-ADOPTERS
Some growers are embracing new kind of farming that brings the crops indoors where they can be protected from the elements.
Dirt farming still produces the bulk of “specialty” crops, or crops grown for human consumption rather than animal feed. Many venture capitalists, seeing the success of indoor agriculture in the Netherlands and elsewhere, see it as the future of “specialty crop” production — though the industry is taking root in the United States in fits and starts.
Indoor vertical farms are the hottest part of the growing “controlled environment agriculture” industry. These are farms that grow lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and other crops on large vertical trellises or metal tubes, and that use high-tech watering systems and artificial light.
Venture investors plowed around 20 percent of their total $4.5 billion in investments into ag-tech start-ups in 2022, according to Crunchbase, which provides business information. Investment plummeted this year by more than 90 percent, according, to Pitchbook, as many high-profile indoor vertical farms closed or became financially shaky.
AeroFarms, one of the earliest vertical farms, founded in 2004 and written about exuberantly as the future of urban farming without soil or natural light, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June. A month later, Elon Musk’s brother Kimbal announced he would close four of his five indoor “smart farm” Square Roots locations and lay off most of their staffs.
Still, there are other bright spots in indoor vertical agriculture that suggest it can be profitable and efficient. In May, Walmart-backed Plenty, also an early player in the space, unveiled what it says is the world’s most technologically advanced indoor vertical farm in Compton, Calif. It is designed to grow up to 4.5 million pounds of leafy greens annually in a single city block, with no human hands touching the product from the time the seed is planted to when the leafy greens are harvested.
Two-story-tall vertical towers are manipulated by huge robotic arms, and the facility has the capacity to grow up to 350 times what a conventional farm can per acre. It requires 10 percent of the water of traditional crops, none of the pesticides, and it grows leafy greens adjacent to the consumers who will eat them. Plenty is also developing an indoor vertical strawberry farm in Virginia with Driscoll, the United States’ leading berry producer.
Plenty chief executive Arama Kukutai talks about the difficulties associated with disrupting “an industry that’s been around for thousands of years” and “finding the economic sweet spot” in this new path forward.
The other, less flashy sector of controlled environment agriculture uses greenhouses, which largely rely on the natural light of the sun filtered through high-transmission glass or plastic.
“There have been greenhouse operations for 40 years,” said Paul Sellew, founder of Little Leaf Farms in Devens, Mass., though in the past they were primarily used to grow ornamentals like flowers and houseplants rather than food. “Now, most tomatoes are greenhouse-grown. Our bet is that the food system is going through a transformation.”
Little Leaf is now the dominant controlled-environment producer of packaged leafy greens in New England, with more than $100 million in sales.
Grown in peat moss and wood fiber, lettuces are watered with captured rainwater, using sunlight supplemented in the winter months with grow lights.
Gotham Greens, one of Little Leaf’s chief competitors, has grown from a single urban rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn in 2011 to a leading producer of hydroponic leafy greens in North America with 1.8 million square feet — more than 40 acres — of greenhouse production.
Windset Farms in Santa Maria, Calif., which has 168 acres of greenhouses and grows 8 million square feet of tomatoes and cucumbers, also eliminates pesticides but has an elaborate system of integrated pest management, cultivating good bugs to hunt down bad ones, and employs a venting system that harvests the cool breeze off the Pacific Ocean.
Solar panels power LED lights to augment the sunlight, and water is recirculated. One pound of field-grown tomatoes takes 30 gallons of water, said Windset chief executive Steven Newell. At Windset, a pound requires three gallons.
Technology allows Windset to grow 40-foot-long looping vines of tomatoes and cucumbers, harvested all year round by full-time employees, not seasonal farmworkers.
Not all tech-centered and sustainable innovation focuses on producing fruits and vegetables. In August, Ruud Zanders opened Kipster in North Manchester, Ind., the United States’ first carbon-neutral, cage-free egg farm with 100,000 hens and a radically transparent stance unknown in the egg world.
The chickens are fed a diet of expired or unused human food. No chickens are debeaked, and the male chicks are not killed, as is typical at chicken farms. The males are raised instead for meat. White chickens are more feed-efficient and their white eggs more sun-reflective, another small carbon gain, along with solar panels and an automated system for dehydrating chicken excrement and turning it into fertilizer. The vision is a fully circular supply chain: Kroger sells the eggs, and in turn provides feed for the chickens with expired groceries; the whole process takes place regionally to minimize transportation costs.
AN UNCERTAIN WAY FORWARD
AN UNCERTAIN WAY FORWARD
AN UNCERTAIN WAY FORWARD
Then there are those farmers who see the way things used to be as well as the challenges ahead in a world with more people, less water, less weather stability and more regulation.
They say they feel pulled in different directions, wanting to heed the call to be resilient in the face of climate change but struggling to see a way to do that while producing enough to stay profitable.
Tyler Ribeiro, who calls himself the “Dairy Dad” on social media, is a fourth-generation California dairy farmer who partners with his father at Rib-Arrow Dairy in Tulare. He does worry about the environment — particularly when it comes to water, both the lack of it for agriculture and the risk of flooding.
But the focus of state leaders, he said, is adopting regenerative agricultural practices — techniques that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some examples include no- or low-till farming, which leaves more soil undisturbed to reduce erosion, and technology that captures the methane emissions from manure, often to use as a power source. The goal is to be “net-zero,” reducing the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for warming the climate.
That focus doesn’t make a lot of economic sense to him.
The most significant sustainability tool for dairies, he said, is a methane digester: a big, covered lagoon that captures methane from cows’ manure, often transforming it into electricity. But these digesters are expensive, running into the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, something Ribeiro says is prohibitive for dairies with fewer than 1,000 milking cows.
In general, he said, all the efforts to make dairy more sustainable and “green” are “going to take out a lot of businesses. There’s a level of bullying in regulations and mandates that are putting dairies out of business. We have 1,500 milk cows. We have 24 employees — all of them have wives and kids. When you start wiping out these dairies because they don’t fit in this box, you start wiping out whole communities.”
Jared Schilling, who breeds pigs for Coleman Natural Foods, an arm of Perdue, feels the same tension. At his New Back 40 farm in New Athens, Ill., he produces 80,000 pigs annually with about 3,600 breeding sows, along with row crops like corn and soy. He was a conventional pig farmer until three years ago when he moved to natural (that means animals raised in a more humane way and with no antibiotics or hormones), saying that conventional is “a competitive and harsh business, with everything done as cheaply as possible.”
Coleman pays Schilling about 5 to 10 percent more for the hogs so he can cover extra expenses to qualify for the “natural” designation, he said. Still, margins are tight and have driven him to consider doubling the size of his operation, even as he wonders whether any of it is worth the risk in an industry so volatile.
He says climate change is a complicated issue, but he has seen more extreme heat and extreme storms, and has had three barns blow over in the past two years. These challenges, coupled with consolidation in the pork industry that keeps prices low, makes the industry a tough one to endure. “There won’t be new farmers because it’s nearly impossible to start,” he said. “The capital requirements to get into it are insurmountable.”
The Lakota tribe were not historically farmers. They were hunter-gatherers who ate wild rice and fish and tapped sugar maples as they followed the 60 million bison that once roamed North America. In 1868, the U.S. government recognized the Black Hills as part of the Great Sioux Reservation, set aside for exclusive use by the Sioux people. They were forced to farm so “there’s a bad taste in people’s mouths about farming,” said Matte Wilson, food sovereignty director for the Siċaŋġu Lak̇ota nation.
That resistance is changing. Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota is the home of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, who are Siċaŋġu, a band of Lakota people. About 20,000 people live in an area that is about the size of Rhode Island, Wilson said, with just three grocery stores to serve everybody. The tribe lives with high food insecurity, high unemployment and high rates of diet-related diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Most of the Native-owned land is rented to nonnative cattle ranchers.
Food sovereignty is a massive priority for the tribe, with many efforts focused on developing a local food system. Its Siċaŋġu Food Sovereignty Initiative won a Rockefeller Foundation international food system vision prize in 2019. Wilson oversees Keya Wakpala Farm, a small-scale regenerative demonstration farm that produces food for community consumption and also serves as a teaching garden for food entrepreneurs. The tribe also operates the Wolak̇ota Buffalo Range, home to the largest Native-owned and managed bison herd in the world.
The aim is to grow this herd to 1,500 and to use the meat to feed the community and to raise money via commercial harvests of some animals. Tribe leaders hope to get a grant to build their own meat-processing facility so they can butcher animals more effectively. But there isn’t a clear path to profitability, and the farmers struggle with best practices.
Even getting fresh produce into the hands of tribespeople who need it is tricky. In summer, garden beds contained bushels of unpicked, rotting tomatoes and zucchini the size of baseball bats. But the challenges haven’t sapped this community’s joy. Just a few miles down the road, at the tribe’s annual pow wow commemorating the Battle of the Little Bighorn, everyone enjoyed fry bread and corn dogs.
With all food-system revolutions, change is hard won.