• John Ikerd

Family Farms of North America

Updated: Jun 15, 2019


In 2014, I was commissioned by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations to write the Regional Report for North America in recognition of the International Year of Family Farming. I questioned whether they actually wanted me to write the report, since my perceptions of farming in North America are so different from those of the “agricultural establishment.” They insisted I had been chosen because of my perspectives, rather than in spite of them. I questioned whether they would be able to publish my report. The assured me that my report would be published along with those of authors of reports for the other major regions of the world. This blog piece is an abstract of my report.


Summaries of all of the regional reports was published in an International Year of Family Farming special issue of the UN publication, Deep Roots. My summary begins on page 30. I have also posted the full summary of my report on the home page of this website. After more than two years, my full report finally has been published as a FAO-UN Working Paper, Family Farms of North America.   John I.


Family Farms of North America: Abstract


In spite of centuries of family farming, no generally accepted definition of the “family farm” has emerged. I believe this is because the sense of interconnectedness of the family with the farm, which is difficult to define, makes the farm a “family farm” and the family a “farm family.” 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 reflects the social and ethical values of the farm family as well as the potential economic value of farming. Such farms are intentionallymultifunctionality – they provide multiple benefits or values for the family. Family owned and operated farms managed solely or primarily for their economic value are managed as mono-functional farms. Such family farms have unintentional negative social and ecological impacts on society and nature, even if unintentional.

Sustainability may well be the defining question of the 21st century: How can we meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future?  Sustainable farming is inherently multifunctional in that sustainability has three key dimensions: ecological integrity, social equity, and economic viability. Mono-functionally managed farms inevitably compromise ecological and social integrity in their quest for ever greater economic efficiency. Only farmers that manage multifunctionally are capable of farming sustainably and thus deserving of the historical high esteem awarded family farming.


North American farm families today face a number of major challenges – some continuing and others new. Perhaps the most important challenges in all three countries of North America are government farm policies that increasingly support the industrialization of farming in a quest for economic efficiency. The increasing emphasis of farm policies on mono-functional economic efficiency makes it even more difficult for multifunctional family farms to survive economically while maintaining their social and ethical commitments to multifunctionality.


During the 1960s and 1970s, the focus of US farm policy shifted from ensuring food security through preserving family farms to food security through agricultural productivity. A more efficient agriculture was intended to reduce food prices, making adequate quantities of wholesome and nutritious food affordable for everyone. Every major farm program in the US since the New Deal era of the 1930s, in one way or another, has promoted agricultural industrialization – thereby promoting consolidation of agricultural production into fewer and larger economic production units and the demise of multifunctional family farms. However, industrial agriculture has not only failed to provide food security but also has become the major obstacle agricultural sustainability.


The appropriate policy mandate for future farm policies is food sovereignty, meaning: “The right of the world’s peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food, produced in an ecological and sustainable way, and the right to define their own farming and food systems” The food sovereignty of 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. Only multifunctional family farmers are capable of farming sustainably, and only sustainable farms are capable of sustaining humanity. Public policies thus must support this transition from mono- to multi-functionality. Family farms can and must return to their historic honored, almost sacred, position in the cultures of North America as well as the rest of the world.


Executive summary of Family Farmers of North American now on my homepage:  http://johnikerd.com

Full report is available as a FAO-UN Working Paper: Family Farms of North America.


John Ikerd

© 2019 by John Ikerd All Rights Reserved

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