Farm Policies for Sustainability

The essentials of sustainability may seem too philosophical or abstract to be of any real value until they are applied to real-world situations. In a previous post, I explained how the purpose and principles of sustainability apply to sustainable farm management. In this post, I explain the implications for farm policy.


Sustainable farms are not managed for production or profits but for ecological, social, and economic sustainability. Sustainability is about meeting the needs of the present without depleting or permanently damaging the natural or human resources needed to meet the needs of the future. This includes meeting the needs of farmers and farm families. Production and profits are not the purposes of farming but the means of achieving sustainability.


Sustainable farms are not specialized, standardized, agribusinesses but are diversified, individualistic/site-specific, interdependent farming operations. Sustainable farmers do not attempt to dominate or control nature but honor the ecological principles of nature. They also respect the laws of human nature—trust, kindness, and commitment—in their relationships with those affected by their farming operations. And, they respect the realities that economic values are determined by scarcity—not necessity--and that economic efficiency is necessary—but not sufficient. They make and accept responsibility for their own decisions. Furthermore, these same basic ecological, social, and economic principles must permeate all aspects or the whole of sustainable farming systems.


As a result, sustainable farming is one of the most intellectually, emotionally, and physically demanding of all occupations. The purpose of farming is multidimensional—ecological, social, and economic. The laws of nature represent limits or constraints to what farmers can do, as well as guidelines for their success. The principles of sustainability must be honored in ways that accommodate the unique opportunities and constraints of particular niches in nature and places within society. There are no recipes or proven strategies for success. Agricultural sustainability ultimately depends much more on the unique abilities and aspirations of farmers and farm families than on what farmers choose to produce or where they choose to farm.


Sustainable farms are management intensive, meaning they rely on the abilities of farm managers and skilled workers, rather than the mechanical, chemical, biological, and digital technologies. Industrial technologies and purchased input simplify farm management and labor functions, allowing industrial farmers to expand the size of their operations. Industrial farms are capital-intensive, meaning they rely on capital, technology, and hired labor, rather than intensive management and skilled labor. Industrial farm managers manage farm businesses, not farms.


So, what does this have to do with government farm policies? Everything! Current U.S. farm policies are a result of conscious decisions made by government officials in the 1960s and 1970s to support the industrialization of American agriculture. The rationalization for this change in farm policy was that family farmers were not making the most efficient use of the economic resources of rural areas—primarily agricultural land and labor. The agrichemical and mechanical technologies developed following World War II had made commercial fertilizers and pesticides and farm tractors more affordable. By applying the principles of industrialization to farming, fewer farmers would be able to produce more agricultural commodities at lower costs. This would increase the economic efficiency of land and labor use in rural areas.


Industrializing agriculture would also “free millions of farmers from the drudgery of farming” to find higher-paying manufacturing jobs in the cities. The migration of farm families would also reduce the need for employment in local businesses, schools, hospitals, and other public service providers in farming communities. The rural-to-urban migration would improve the economic efficiency of labor used in rural areas and support economic growth in the general economy.


A comprehensive strategy for the transition of U.S. farm policy from supporting family farms to supporting agricultural industrialization was provided in a 1962 report called “An Adaptive Program for Agriculture.”[i] The report was developed by the Committee on Economic Development (CED). The CED is a prestigious “think tank” that claims credit for the Bretton Woods Agreement, the World Bank, and International Monetary Fund among its achievements. The CED report clearly spells out the necessity of phasing out U.S. government policies that supported family farming, such as “parity prices.” This would pressure more farmers to abandon farming and their rural communities and accelerate rural-urban migration.


The CED report made no attempt to identify specific legislation or policy changes that would be needed to support the transition. They simply redefined the purpose of U.S. farm policy as improving the economic efficiency of agriculture and developed a policy framework that embodied the basic principles of industrial agriculture—specialization, standardization, and consolidation. Price supports, deficiency payments, subsidized crop and revenue insurance, low-interest guaranteed loans, preferential tax policies, and public research and extension have all facilitated the industrialization of agriculture–in spite of claims of proponents that they support family farms. Virtually every major U.S. farm policy since the late 1960s has supported the industrialization of agriculture and has made it more difficult for independent family farmers to survive.


The industrialization of American agriculture was made possible by new agricultural technologies but was made inevitably by the changes in U.S. farm policies. The changes in farm policies were accomplished by simply refocusing the entire agenda of U.S. farm policy on programs that incentivized and supported the basic principles of industrialization: specialization, standardization, and consolidation of control.


A transition from industrial to sustainable agriculture will require a similar fundamental change in U.S. farm policy. Far more is currently known about regenerative, resilient, resourceful farming systems than was known about industrial farming systems in the 1960s. The technical knowhow of sustainable farming is far more advanced today than were the industrial technologies of the 1960s. Furthermore, sustainable technologies are benign, rather than potentially dangerous, because sustainable farms function in harmony with nature. All we need is a fundamental change in farm and food policies.


First, the purpose of farm policy must be changed from economic efficiency to agricultural sustainability—which requires ecological, social, and economic integrity. Second, farm policies supporting the principles of specialization, standardization, and consolidation of control must be systematically replaced with policies that support diversification, individualization, and interdependence. Government programs must be designed to incentivize and support management-intensive, whole-farm systems rather than specific commodities or farming practices. The focus of farm policies must shift from supporting agricultural production to supporting farmers.


The social principles of sustainability must be honored by farm policies that incentivize and support independent family farms and community-based food systems. On true family farms, the farms and farm families are integrally connected with their communities. Local food systems also create opportunities for trusting, caring, committed relationships among farmers and between farmers and their customers and neighbors. Rebuilding the physical and technical infrastructure for bioregional food systems could also reverse the rural-to-urban employment migration and create more diverse rural communities.


Finally, sustainable food policies must ensure economically competitive markets that allow scarcity, rather than corporate market power, to determine market prices and terms of trade. Economic efficiency requires transparency, meaning accurate information, rather than greenwashing, pseudo-sustainability, and other deceptive practices. Informed consumers must be free to choose sustainably produced foods without deception or coercion. Sustainable farmers don’t need government policies that provide economic incentives, but they do need policies that ensure economic feasibility.


Farm policies that support authentic agricultural sustainability will emerge naturally, once the purpose and guiding principles of agri-food policies are changed from economic efficiency to sustainability—much as they did in the 1960s and 1970s. Our evolving experiences of reality emerge from the purpose and principles we choose to guide us. This is the key to public policy for agri-food sustainability.


John Ikerd

[i] Committee on Economic Development, An Adaptive Program for Agriculture, 1962.