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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ikerd

Does Size Matter? The True Cost of Big Farms

Updated: Jun 11, 2019

I have blogged previously about my participation in the True Cost of Food Conference in San Francisco. I was asked to prepare a summary of the key points in my presentation related to the importance of scale or farm size in sustainable agriculture. I have also posted the paper I prepared for my presentation on my homepage for those who want to get the whole story. The paper is probably the most comprehensive statement I have written on the importance of small farms to sustainable agriculture.

  • Does farm size affect the true cost of food? The short answer: Yes! The increase in size of U.S. farms is a result of a quest for economic efficiency. As farms have grown larger, the external economic costs of farming have risen, suggesting a relationship between farm size and economic externalities. The non-economic external costs of large farms may matter even more than the economic externalities. Most advocates of sustainable agriculture seem to believe that in farming size doesn’t I believe today’s large farms would need to be managed like well-managed small farms if they were to be sustainable.

  • I consider a farm to be a single management unit – a combination of land, labor, and capital, managed as a single farm or economic entity. The greater the reliance on management and labor relative to land and capital the greater the management-intensity or human-intensity. The greater the management-intensity, the smaller the size of the farm in terms of land, capital, or total value of production. The less the intensity of management or less reliant on the human factors of production, the larger the farm or ranching operation or economic unit.

  • Management intensity determines whether the economic benefits go primarily to farmers or to those who provide land and capital: meaning how much of the economic benefit go to those in rural communities. But even more important, management intensity matters because the sustainability of a farming operation depends on the intensity with which farms are managed. The large farms that dominate today’s agriculture are not unsustainable because they are large, they are large because they are managed unsustainably.

  • Sustainable farms must meet the basic food needs of all in the present without diminishing opportunities for the future. Today’s large farms obviously are doing neither. The percentage of people in the U.S. classified as “food insecure” today is about three-times larger than during the 1960s. Today’s industrial food system is linked to an epidemic of obesity and other diet-related health problems. In addition, today’s dominant farming systems are degrading the health of soils and mining the productivity of the land and demeaning the agricultural workforce – resources essential for the future of American agriculture.

  • Today’s call for “true cost accounting” is a direct consequence of the rising economic cost of the negative ecological and social impacts of industrial agriculture – meaning the true economic costs of extensively-managed, large farms. While a step in the right direction, sustainable farming ultimately will require an approach to farm management that is fundamentally different from the extensive-management paradigm that characterizes today’s large farms. As Wendell Berry calls it, we ultimately must Solving for Pattern.

  • The pattern of large farms is that of a machine or mechanism – of industry. The natural ecosystems and rural cultures within which farms must function are living systems rather than machines – organisms rather than mechanisms. In fact, a farm itself is an organism – a living system. The ecological and social externalities of large farms are a natural consequence of the inherent disharmony and conflict between the industrial extensive-management paradigm, which causes large farms to be large, and the ecological and social context within which farms must function. Economically viable small farms must be managed intensively to function in harmony with their ecological and social environment.

  • The lack of sustainability in American agriculture today is a natural consequence of a management paradigm chosen to maximize economic efficiency, which inevitably conflicts with ecological and social integrity. Small farms provide more higher-quality employment opportunities and allow farmers to farm sustainably. Today’s large farms were the right size for economic efficiency but are too large for ecological, social, and economic sustainability.

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