From Crisis to Cultivation: The Resurgence of Farming in America
The inaugural Farm Aid concert took place in September 1985 on the campus of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I had the privilege of being in the audience that day. The event was not only a fantastic concert but also a stark reminder of the challenges faced by rural America during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. For those of us pursuing degrees in Agricultural Economics, it was an especially trying time.
The Farm Crisis of the 1980s resulted in the loss of two generations of farmers. The first group comprised tens of thousands of farmers who endured foreclosures and bankruptcies. The second group included many of my peers whose parents had weathered the crisis but discouraged their children from entering the farming profession due to the difficulties they had faced. The future looked bleak for family farmers at that point.
The seeds of the Farm Crisis were sown in the early 1970s when the farm economy was thriving. Commodity exports soared, crop prices rose and net farm income doubled, leading to a sense of optimism and “irrational exuberance” in rural America. However, the bubble burst when interest rates shot up, plunging the farm economy into turmoil.
At that time, the prevailing vision for the future of farming was one of fewer farms with larger acreages, abandoning the traditional small, diversified family farm.
As an agricultural lender in the bright and shiny future 50 years later, I am happy to report that the farm landscape is much more colorful and dynamic than my lending predecessors might have expected.
In recent years, there has been a remarkable influx of first-generation farmers, some of whom did not grow up on farms. The trend was further boosted during the pandemic as work-from-home policies allowed people to balance full-time employment with part-time farming. These new farmers come from diverse backgrounds, including young and energetic individuals with limited capital, older career changers with some financial resources, women, immigrants, people of color and even some farming in urban areas like Chicago.
This new wave of farmers runs smaller-scale, diversified family operations, embracing regenerative or organic farming practices, agritourism, on-farm processing and cooperative initiatives. They are actively involved in their local communities, revitalizing towns and bringing new cultures to agriculture.
As part of the Farm Credit System, a nationwide network of farmer-owned, farmer-led lending cooperatives, Compeer Financial recognized the significance of these emerging markets and established the Emerging Markets loan six years ago to cater to their unique needs. My colleague Sai Thao and I have had the great fortune of designing and operating the program from the beginning. The program has been successful, supporting over 200 loans with no borrower defaults. I spent the early years of my professional life watching farms die and now I get to see new farms being born every day.
Looking ahead, I believe the farm landscape will continue to evolve positively. Small, successful, diverse farms will be more prevalent in rural, suburban and urban areas, enriching their communities and becoming integral parts of people’s lives. Having a favorite farmer may be as common as having a favorite doctor, and anyone with a calling to become a farmer will find opportunities to pursue their dreams.
The farm economy has come a long day since the challenging days of the Farm Crisis. Thanks to the efforts of new and passionate farmers, we now witness a vibrant and colorful farm landscape, paving the way for a more sustainable and promising future.