Family Farms are Multifunctional

Despite centuries of family farming, no generally accepted definition of the “family farm” has emerged. The likelihood a farm is a true “family farm” decreases along gradients from family labor to paid employees, family capital to non-farm investments, independent operator to contract producer, land owner to cash renter, single proprietor to a corporation, and producing for families and local markets to producing for international markets. A family that provides the labor for a farm makes the management decisions and owns and lives on the farm is more likely to feel a deep, personal sense of connectedness to the farm, which characterizes family farms.


It’s the sense of interconnectedness of the family with the farm that makes the farm a “family farm” and the family a “farm family.” Such farms and families are inseparable. The same farm with a different family would be a different farm, and the same family with a different farm would be a different family. True family farms represent a way of life rather than just a means of making an economic living. Such farms are managed in ways that reflect the social and ethical values of the farm family as well as the economic value of farming: they are intentionally multifunctionality. Family-owned and operated farms that give the economic bottom line priority over concerns for their communities and the future of humanity are managed as mono-functional farms. Such farms still have social and ecological effects on society and nature, but these effects are generally negative rather than positive.


Those of us who value traditional family farms are often seen as naïve or idealistic. However, it is not naïve to be concerned about sustainability. The controversies surrounding family farms versus industrial farms invariably center on questions of agricultural sustainability: The ability to meet the basic food needs of all of the present without diminishing opportunities for those of future generations. Sustainability is inherently multifunctional in that it has three key dimensions: ecological integrity, social equity, and economic viability. A farm that doesn’t protect and reinvest in the productivity of nature and society cannot be sustained economically. Only farms that are managed multifunctionally are capable of addressing the multiple dimension of sustainability.


The historical root meanings of the words “farm” and “farmer” suggest that economics has always been an important aspect of farms and farming. However, these words have also always had important social and ethical dimensions. Historically, farmers have managed their farms multifunctionally. The more recent emphasis of industrial agriculture on economic efficiency invariably leads to the extraction and exploitation of the natural and human resources that ultimately must sustain long-run agricultural productivity. True family farms are and have always been a way of life, not just a business, and thus have a natural, ingrained advantage in meeting the multiple needs of all both present and future generations.


Industrial agriculture has proven incapable of providing even basic food security. About one-in-six residents of the US and one-in-eight Canadians are classified as “food insecure.” Many can get enough food to satisfy their need for calories or energy only by buying cheap industrial food products that fail to meet their nutritional needs for healthy, active lifestyles. As a result, diet-related illnesses in the US are rampant, including obesity and related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, heart failure, and various types of cancers. Globally, development experts attribute the persistent hunger to increases in population made possible by increased food production of the Green Revolution. However, many of those living and working in developing nations have a very different view. Numerous studies sponsored by the United Nations indicate that multifunctional farms are key for meeting the food needs of a growing global population. In the U.S., the challenge is agricultural sustainability, not agricultural productivity.


Food security has been the logical justification for farm policies in the past. However, with growing ecological and social equity concerns, a more encompassing farm policy mandate for the future is agricultural sustainability. Thus, farm policies that support and promote agricultural sustainability must support and promote intentional multifunctionality. Examples include: 1) Reducing the emphasis on subsidies for industrial agriculture that incentivize specialization and corporatization at the expense of diversification and family farms, beginning with programs linked to specific commodities – including subsidized crop insurance. 2) Reducing economic risks for multifunctional family farms with subsidized “whole-farm net revenue insurance.” 3) Subsidizing farm families, not farm production: Linking government payments to family size, not farm size – subsidizing people, not production.


Policies supporting multifunctional farming must extend beyond farming operations to: 1) Ensuring basic health care for multifunctional farm families as well as workforce compensation and other “fringe benefits.” 2) Restoring farmland to “the commons” by permanently zoning enough farmland for food production to meet the food needs of all of both current and future generations. 3) Develop land tenure policies that support more farms and farmers, local markets, local control, and food democracy – ensuring that land is used for the common good. 5) Redirecting public research and education to serve public interests, giving priority to on-farm research and with-farmer education. Farming must be treated as a learned profession.


In summary, the sustainability of food production for the benefit of all the “world’s people” can be and should be ensured by policies that support a global network of local community-based food systems that support and are supported by multifunctional family farms. Multifunctional farmers are endowed with the inherent potential to farm sustainably, and sustainable farms are essential to achieving sustainable food and agricultural systems. Public policies thus must support a transition from mono- to multi-functional farming.


 John Ikerd

Note: For an in-depth explanation of the relationships between family farms and multifunctionality, see Family Farming between its past and potential future with a focus on multifunctionality and sustainability