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Where Did All the Farmers Go?

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Sometimes you get a confluence of things you read that give you a new insight into the way things work.

I am reading Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris' excellent biography of Teddy Roosevelt. Then, this morning, I read Mark Bittman's piece about tomato farming in Iowa, "Not All Industrial Food is Evil."

You might not think they have much to do with each other, let alone the ramifications of the Internet Revolution.

But I think they do.

While Bittman's piece is all about how large, mechanized farming in America has created both good and plentiful food, in this case, tomatoes, one line in the piece really stuck with me:

I began by touring Bruce Rominger's farm in Winters. With his brother Rick and as many as 40 employees, Rominger farms around 6,000 acres of tomatoes, wheat, sunflowers, safflower, onions, alfalfa, sheep, rice and more.

6,000 acres

That is really big.

For those of us who don't work on farms, (which is pretty much everyone I know -- more on this later), 6,000 acres is 9.37 square miles.

By way of comparison, Manhattan is 37 square miles.

So Bruce Rominger's farm is about 1/3 the size of Manhattan.

To a New Yorker, that's pretty big.

American farms were not always so huge. At the time that Teddy Roosevelt became President of the United States, the average American farm was about 128 acres. A lot smaller than Bruce Rominger's farm. A lot. And, more interestingly, many more Americans were involved in the world of farming. In 1903, when Roosevelt became president (and only a bit more than 100 years ago), nearly half the country worked in the farming industry.

Today, a mere 2.3 percent of the population is involved in farming -- and yet farms have become vastly more productive.

What made the difference?

In a word: technology.

The arrival of increasingly better and more sophisticated machinery made it possible for fewer people to do far more work.

When I was in college, I dropped out for a year and went to work, among other places, on a farm in Iowa.

At that time, the farm I worked on was about 1,000 acres and it was considered pretty big. But we were able to harvest acres and acres and acres of corn and soybeans by using a 12 head John Deere combine. And that was, depressingly, more than 30 years ago. Since then, the machinery has only gotten bigger, better and more efficient.

But what an upheaval the transformation from 50 percent of the population working in agriculture to 2.3 percent must have been.

What combines did to farming the Internet is now doing to a lot of other professions -- making them faster, better, cheaper and far more efficient. Who does not like being able to go to Amazon and order just about anything and have it appear at your door the next day?

But the fallout from these new technologies is, as with the agricultural revolution, an enormous dislocation in jobs.

Classified ads used to employ thousands of people across the country, not to mention supporting hundreds of newspapers. But Craig Newmark and his 20 employees became the Bruce Rominger of classifieds. Those jobs are gone and they are not coming back. And so too for the thousands who worked in places like Tower Records or Blockbuster.

And we are still only at the very beginning of this thing.

Today, hardly anyone mourns the loss of 'the family farm.' And, as Bittman points out, tomatoes are available to everyone at extremely reasonable prices and of excellent quality.

Hardly anyone complains that if you want to watch a movie, you don't have to go down to the theater, buy a ticket, stand in line, and then can only watch the one or two movies that are playing, when they are playing. You can just go on Netflix and watch whatever you want, when you want.

Or download Edmund Morris' book.

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