Are small farms poised for a comeback in the United States? It's not a crazy question to ask. Stuart Staniford recently wrote a fascinating post noting that the number of farms around the country has slowly been rising over the past decade, for the first time since the Great Depression.

Between 2002 and 2007, the U.S. farm count rose 4 percent, reversing a long-standing decline. In fact, this is the first time that the overall number of farms has risen since 1935, when the Great Depression temporarily pushed many Americans back to the fields:

Okay, the graph doesn't lie. It's a very small blip. But possibly an interesting one!

There's a nice, concise history of U.S. agriculture contained in that chart. During the 19th century, gains in U.S. food production mostly came from a rapid increase in the number of farms. Then, with the development of hybrid crops in the 1920s and the rise of new fertilizers and mechanized tools, farms became vastly more productive. Ever since, the U.S. farm count has been plunging. As the Department of Agriculture details here, large farms bigger than 500 acres have been steadily swallowing up small and mid-sized farms since the 1970s. We've been able to produce more and more food on fewer farms.

Over the past decade, however, that trend appears to have bottomed out and might even be reversing itself. Census data suggests that smaller farms are slowly making a comeback—perhaps driven by the $1 billion boom in local farmers' markets—while medium-large farms are dwindling.

Meanwhile, if this New York Times trend story is anything to go on, a growing number of young and college-educated students are now getting into farming:

For decades, the number of farmers has been shrinking as a share of the population, and agriculture has often been seen as a backbreaking profession with little prestige. But the last Agricultural Census in 2007 showed a 4 percent increase in the number of farms, the first increase since 1920, and some college graduates are joining in the return to the land.
Jordan Schmidt, a crew manager here at Hearty Roots, studied environmental science at Wesleyan. Ms. Schmidt, 27, did not have so much as a garden growing up, but in college, she said, she worked at a student-run farm and fell in love with agriculture. So she gave up on research science and moved onto a farm in Pennsylvania after graduating. This is her third season at Hearty Roots.

True, this appears to be a largely voluntary move — a smattering of college graduates who find farm life more appealing than, say, a cubicle job. Yet some experts think we could well see an even bigger shift toward farming in the coming years. Sharon Astyk, author of "A Nation of Farmers," points out that the U.S. agricultural sector is facing demographic pressures that will create a huge demand for younger farmers in the coming years:

Let us say that we will need only 2% of the US population to become farmers. But since the vast majority of farmers are facing retirement within the next two decades, and under 35 farmers are such a tiny percentage, that means we will need to train 30-50 times as many young farmers in the next two decades as we have been doing. The numbers could be substantially higher. But where would even those small numbers of farmers come from? Even if the younger farmers were to have a lot of kids and encourage them to stay on the farm, that doesn’t resolve the problem.
So where do they come from? This is a new problem for human society – while we’ve always had some people take up agriculture as a new profession (and when that happened, say, during the settlement of the US west, there were always extremely high failure rates and ecological costs), the vast majority of those who did the work and stayed at it grew up on farms. We have never before in human history (except perhaps when we developed agriculture, and that didn’t happen all at once) had to teach an entire generation of non-farmers to farm. But that’s the problem we face.

Elsewhere, Astyk has argued that the coming era of tight oil supplies and high crude prices could eventually increase the overall number of farms (and farmers) in the United States by putting a crimp in industrial agriculture, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. (Read here for Astyk's full argument — and see here for a counterargument by Staniford that peak oil could actually help industrial agriculture.)

Whether a small-farm revival is already upon us is unclear. We'll have to wait for the next round of agricultural census data, going up to 2012, to see if the recent farm uptick continues to hold or is merely just a bit of noisy data.

Further reading:

— Has the United States beaten peak oil? Not so fast.

— A brief history of U.S. corn, in one chart.