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April 1995, Vol. 118, No. 4
Randy E. Ilg
S everal decades of transformation in American agriculture have slowly but ever so surely altered the rural landscape. In the process, the faces that now inhabit the farm have changed dramatically. Remarkable shifts have occurred in the demographic characteristics of farmers and farm laborers, in the number and size of farms, and in the makeup of the "typical" family farm.1
Farm employment, a subset of agricultural employment, includes persons employed directly in the production of food and fiber products-farm operators, managers, and laborers. Workers in these occupations-who now number about 2 million-accounted for only 1.7 percent of the Nation's employment in 1993, down from 6.4 percent three decades earlier. The mass exodus of millions of farmers and farmworkers into other sectors of the economy already had taken place by the 1970's, even as farm output continued to surge. Further technological advances over the past two decades have largely been reflected in increased output, although employment has continued to slip.
Not only has farm employment fallen, but many changes have taken place in the characteristics of farmers and farmworkers and in the nature of farming itself. The last three decades have witnessed dramatic shifts: from the pronounced use of black workers to employment of Hispanic workers; from smaller to larger farms; from that South to the West; from lower to higher levels of educational attainment; and , to a lesser extent, from male to female ownership. In addition, unpaid work by family members, which for so long had characterized the "typical" family farm, declined substantially.
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1 According to the Department of Agriculture, no existing definition of a family farm is completely satisfactory for policy purposes. The Census of Agriculture first defined a farm in 1850. Since then, it has changed its criteria nine times. The current definition, used since 1974, is "any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold or normally would have been sold during the census year." For a discussion of this issue, see "Baseline Projections of Farm Income," The Outlook for Farm Commodity Program Spending, Fiscal Years 1990-1995, April 1990, p. 71. See also Report of the Commission on Agricultural Workers, November 1992, p. 3.
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