Saving the Small, Family Farm in America

17 March 2009

My roots stem from a farming family.  The term "farm" means many different things to many different people.  When I went to China, I was shocked to find that there seemed to be no equivalent word in the Chinese language which matches what we Americans call a "farmer".  In my experience (and correct me, dear Chinese friends, if I am wrong), one Chinese word which we would translate as "farmer" really kind of means, "hardscrabble, dirt poor peasant," and the other word translates more like "rich landlord". 

Each plot of this land in China is being farmed by a different family


The American concept of farmer is, historically, somewhere in between.  The pioneers who typically became our "farmers" were peasants of some sort in Europe who sold all that they owned and took a voyage on a small boat, sometimes at great risk.  When they got off the boat, they put all their possessions into a wagon and headed out to find a plot of land on which to build a homestead.  At first, they would build a small cabin and clear out a few acres for a vegetable garden, then over time they would build an enclosure to protect domestic animals and eventually clear field for plowing.  That’s the basic history of my family’s farm, as well as many others. 

Most people in the USA, when they think of a farm, probably think of a farm much like my family’s.  Although our farm has been planted in pasture for some time, prior to that the fields were terraced and plowed. 

Regardless of its size, whether 20 acres or 2,000 acres, the main thing (I think) is that most people in the USA think of a "farm" as a place where a family lives and makes a living from working the land.  In many parts of the world, people live in a village and then walk out each day to tend the land which lies outside the village.  Not so here.  It’s more typical for each plot of land farmed by a particular family to have a house in the center, where that family lives.  

Unfortunately, one can no longer assume that the food one eats comes from such a farm. 

The big picture is that in the USA, small family farms are becoming extinct.  What has taken their place are huge corporation-owned mega farms.  At some of these farms, for example, as many as 20,000 hogs are housed in one spot.  My personal belief is that if ordinary consumers knew what conditions are really like for animals on these farms, they would never purchase meat produced on them.  For one thing, the animals are fed hormones and antibiotics that artificially cause them to gain weight faster; but that’s not the worst of it.  Rendered parts of dead animals are mixed back into the animal feed, forcing the animals to eat things that God (and their vegetarian digestive systems) never intended. 

(Think about it this way:  if the difference in price between the "all natural" chicken and the "ordinary" one is 50%, ask yourself what led to that price difference.  The difference is a monetary quantification of difference in quality between those two animals’ feed and living conditions.)   

For commodity crops like corn and beans, fields on industrial, mega-farms are sprayed with herbicides that kill all plants.  The fields are then sown with seeds from crops that have been genetically modified so that only that the type of seed is resistant to the herbicide.  (One fear of anti GMO people is that one of these freak genes may make its way into a weed plant, resulting in a weed that is resistant to all efforts to control it.)  These mega farms also utilize only certain varieties of seeds that are grown specifically to optimize production and ship-ability. 

Tomatoes and peaches are two crops that immediately come to mind when discussing shipability.  Delicate or unusual varieties such as Georgia Belle or Cherokee, which don’t ship well, will never be found in a megafarm.  This reduces genetic diversity of the seed stock, ultimately making the food supply more vulnerable to blight.

It is also argued that corporate megafarms have little regard for workers and communities.  They are highly mechanized and employ as few workers as possible.  Moreover, U.S. migrant worker policy allows corporations with the wherewithal to import alien workers, who are then exempt (to their own detriment) from laws which protect citizen workers.   Mega farms have the same effect on small time farms that Wal Mart has on its small time business, except that Wal Mart is subsidized by American consumers rather than the U.S.Department of Agriculture.  

U.S.Department of Agriculture subsidies flow disproportionately to these farms, reducing the production cost of commodities like corn and milk.  As a result partly of U.S. farm subsidies, it’s cheaper to buy a fully processed McDonald’s hamburger than it is to purchase a wholesome all-vegetable meal grown on the more environmentally friendly, "green" family farm next door.   

That’s a gross oversimplification of the situation, of course.  Of course, if I’m wrong I would appreciate comments to help me get the story straight, but please don’t get bogged down in the details.  My main goal here not to provide painstaking detail but rather to paint with a broad brush, get you thinking, and to provide a starting point for further research (if you are interested). 


One web page (click HERE), states (with supporting footnotes) the following facts:

  • According to the EPA, 3,000 acres of productive U.S. farmland are lost to development every day.
  • Between 1974 and 2002, the number of corporate-owned U.S. farms increased by more than 46 percent.
  • 82% of Americans are somewhat or very concerned about the decreasing number of American farms.
  • 85% of Americans trust smaller scale family farms to produce safe, nutritious food.
  • In the US, the average principal farm operator is 55.3 years old.
  • Between 2005 and 2006, the US lost 8,900 farms (a little more than 1 farm per hour)

A study by U.S. Department of Agriculture which shows the big picture is titled “A Time to Act: A Report of the USDA National Commission on Small Farms,” January 1998 (click HERE).   It recommends specific policy goals as being:

  • Policy Goal 1: Recognize the importance and cultivate the strengths of small farms;
  • Policy Goal 2: Create a framework of support and responsibility for small farms;
  • Policy Goal 3: Promote, develop, and enforce fair, competitive, and open markets for small farms;
  • Policy Goal 4: Conduct appropriate outreach through partnerships to serve small farm and ranch operators;
  • Policy Goal 5: Establish future generations of farmers;
  • Policy Goal 6: Emphasize sustainable agriculture as a profitable, ecological, and socially sound strategy for small farms;
  • Policy Goal 7: Dedicate budget resources to strengthen the competitive position of small farms in American agriculture;
  • Policy Goal 8: Provide just and humane working conditions for all people engaged in production agriculture

Here are some interesting facts from this report:

  • Even though only about one-third of U.S. farmers have participated in Federal farm programs, these programs have historically been structurally biased toward benefiting the largest farms. Farm payments have been calculated on the basis of volume of production, thus giving a greater share of payments to large farms, enabling them to further capitalize and expand their operations. Attempts to place caps on the amount of payments per farm have not resulted in their intended effects.
  • The present system of “transition” payments perpetuates the large-farm bias because the amount of payment is based on historical payment levels. A new risk management tool, “revenue insurance,” also perpetuates a large-farm bias through its provisions of coverage for the few major program commodities with no limit on the amount of coverage provided. Additionally, recent changes in Federal tax policy provide disproportionate benefits to large farms through tax incentives for capital purchases to expand operations. Large-scale farms that depend on hired farm workers for labor receive exemptions from Federal labor law afforded workers in every other industry, allowing them the advantage of low-wage labor costs.
  • Another popular statistic used to describe the structure of agriculture is the contribution of value of production per sales class. Farms with gross sales under $250,000 make up 94 percent of all farms. However, these farms receive only 41 percent of all farm receipts. In other words, out of 2 million farms, only 122,810 of the super-large farms receive the majority of farm receipts.

Barack Obama’s position statement on rural issues (small family farm issues) states (for link click HERE ) that Obama will: 

  • fight for farm programs that provide family farmers with stability and predictability. They will implement a $250,000 payment limitation so that we help family farmers – not large corporate agribusiness.
  • provide capital for farmers to create value-added enterprises, like cooperative marketing initiatives and farmer-owned processing plants.
  • improve rural quality of life by combatting methamphetamine use, improving health care, improving education, and upgrading infrastructure in rural areas.

The current proposed budget of the Obama Administration is being targed by organized lobbies of large, industrial farms because it eliminates subsidies of farms with net income of over $500,000 per year.  On its web site, the nonprofit group Farm Aid (click HERE)discusses the probable effect of the federal stimulus package effect on small scale, family farmers. 

The web link provided will take you to a petition to ask your Congressman to make family farmers part of economic recovery package: ensure access to credit, give small family farmers same protection as other homeowners against loss of homes

I have mentioned that industrial agribusiness is very different from small family farming.  A web link which compares and contrasts sustainable versus industrial farming is HERE

If you are a small farmer struggling to make it, and trying to find ways to stay on the farm, my sympathies are with you.  My personal belief is that the way forward must include educating consumers about the benefits of buying locally produced goods from small family enterprises. 

One successful co-op is Organic Valley Farmer’s Cooperative.  Their web site (HERE, and specifically ) gives information about the products they produce and what it takes to join. 

Another excellent web site is posted by the Koinonia community (click HERE ).  This site even has links to videos which may give you ideas about what to farm, practical tips on running a farm, and even videos devoted to how to market your farm products.   



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