It’s important to remember that farming is a business. To continue their existence, farms must have profits in order to support their business and their families.
These are not faceless farms with a mystery owner. As of 2020, 98% of the farms in the US are family-run, meaning most of the business is owned by the operator and their relatives. Small family farms accounted for 89% of all US farms. Large family farms accounted for about 3% of farms but 46% of the value of production.
Our population is increasing as fewer people go into agriculture as a profession. Of the over 7 billion people globally, approximately 330 million live across the US. More food needs to be produced somehow by fewer farmers. But expanding our agricultural production to feed more people is seen negatively. We must be using too many resources. Regardless of the needs agriculture fills, the assumption is it must be unsustainable.
On the contrary, the agricultural industry uses fewer resources today to produce more food. This is not only good for the planet but good for these families’ businesses.
US agriculture as a whole accounts for less than 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, which is less than transportation (29%), electricity (25%), industry (23%), and commercial and residential sources (13%).
In 2008, the US dairy sector conducted a life cycle assessment, showing it contributes just 2% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. More recently, the average greenhouse gas emissions for dairy across the globe are 2.5%, while North America’s greenhouse gas emissions for dairy are 1.29%–almost half the global average.
Why is this number so much lower? It’s in farmers’ interest to make farming practices as sustainable as possible, for the business and its resources. From 1944 to 2006, US dairy farmers reduced their carbon footprint by 63%, creating 75% less manure waste and using 65% less water and 90% less land in that time. Due to even more advances in dairy farming practices, the environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk in 2017 shrunk to a 19% smaller carbon footprint than in 2007, requiring 30% less water and 21% less land.
Part of this reduction is due to the efficiency of today’s dairy cows. Since 1950, US dairy herds have decreased from approximately 25 million to a population of 9 million dairy cows, producing 60% more milk thanks to improved genetics.
Further, the US dairy community has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality, optimize water use, and improve water quality by 2050. The Net Zero Initiative has four key areas of focus, including feed production, manure handling and nutrient management, cow care and efficiency, and on-farm energy efficiency and renewable energy use. This pledge exemplifies the efforts farming families take to help their businesses succeed so the next generation of farmers can take over.