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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ikerd

Successful Small Family Farms: Myth or Reality?

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

Someone recently forwarded me a link to an opinion piece by freelance writer Sarah Mock that begins: “I tried to prove that small family farms are the future. Couldn’t do it!” I read the post and decided to attribute her conclusions to naivety, narrowmindedness, or perhaps opportunism, and just ignored it. After receiving the same link from several others and seeing it shared on social media, I thought maybe I should provide an alternative perspective. Mock ended up writing the book "Farm (and Other F Words): The Rise and Fall of the Small Family Farm." I haven’t read the book, so I will just address what she wrote in the opinion piece.

Mock begins by explaining that in 2016 she landed a book deal to explore “why small family farms were at risk and what could be done to protect them.” She wrote, “the question I wanted to tackle: If the small family farm was the future, why were so many people unable to build one that worked? Especially when, on the older, more conservative, and conventional side of the industry, farmers were not only preserving and building multigenerational farms, they were living quite comfortably while doing so.”

She continues, “When I started writing about agriculture, I was confident that the most important stories would help flesh out the plan for the small family farm’s future, find the farmers who were making it work, and highlight their narratives, to spread the movement. In the course of my reporting, I’ve met a lot of farmers who fit this mold: passionate work-junkies positively obsessed with food, community, climate, and social change. But the longer I’ve watched, I’ve seen more and more of these farms struggle, pull back, and disappear.”

She eventually was able to find three farms that met some of her criteria for a successful small family farm. “Each of these farms was financially stable in their own way. But at the same time, none of them looked or acted the way the ideal small family farm is supposed to look or act. How was I going to tell prospective farmers (let alone my publisher) that to build a successful small family farm, you have to prioritize profit above all and have access to either inherited land or independent wealth?”

“But in almost two years of sprawling research, getting to know farmers all over the country, these were the trends that I saw. So this was the story I wrote. Why was there so much talk of accounting and marketing, and not more descriptions of hands in soil, majestic landscapes, and tearfully savored food? Why, in short, had I written about the reality of small family farms and not the ideal?”

She concludes: “It was a case of an editor looking for a story that could not be truthfully told. But the craziest part was, in the moment, I totally understood. Not unlike many farmers, I’d believed I’d failed to find the successful small family farms that must surely be out there. It didn’t occur to me for a long time that I couldn’t find them because they don’t really exist.”

She writes: “Lawmakers… over the last century have provided tens of billions of dollars in direct government purchases, payments, and subsidized crop insurance, in addition to massive tax breaks. U.S. taxpayers have also made sizable investments in agricultural science, research and educating farmers, and infrastructure. In short, the American public has provided small (overwhelmingly white) family farms with capital, workers, advanced knowledge, and protection from disasters for a century.” So, why have so many small farms failed?

First, Mock fails to understand or appreciate that the government programs she attributes to efforts to preserve small family farms are a major reason why so many small family farms have failed. The farm programs initiated in the 1930s, in fact, were designed to make it possible for family farmers to survive the Great Depression. Their farms were the nation’s food security. Prices were supported at levels that would allow farm families to earn incomes at “parity” with non-farm families. During the 1960s, however, the government began shifting farm policies from supporting small family farms to subsidizing agricultural industrialization.

The policymakers rationalized that new, post-war chemical and mechanical technologies would allow the economic efficiencies of industrial production to be achieved in farming. A 1962 report of the Congressional Committee on Economic Development outlined a farm policy framework for replacing small, diversified family farms with large, specialized farming operations. They wrote: “The movement of people out of agriculture has not been fast enough to take advantage of the opportunities that improving farm technologies, thus increasing capital, create.”

Farm programs that insured livable incomes for farm families were systematically replaced by the programs mentioned by Mock. As she points out, “today only about 2 million family farms remain in the country, and to support them, the federal government continues to spend about $20 billion annually.” She fails to acknowledge that less than one-third of farmers receive these government subsidies and “from 1995 to 2020, the top 10 percent of commodity payment recipients were paid 78 percent of commodity payments.” These farmers are living quite comfortably, at least financially. Today’s government programs incentivize, enable, and absorb the inherent risks of large, specialized farming operations.

I worked in the Land Grant University system as it changed its mission from research and education supporting diversified family farms to the development and transfer of industrial agricultural technologies. We left small, family farms to fend for themselves while we helped promote agricultural industrialization. This is the main reason “Why small family farms have been at risk:” Small family farms have been forced to compete with heavily subsidized, large-scale industrial farming operations.

That being said, many small, family farms have found ways to succeed, largely by relying on customers who are willing and able to pay premium prices to minimize their reliance on the industrial food system. Their customers are willing to sacrifice some level of convenience and costs to secure food that has ecological and social integrity. The early organic movement provided a degree of financial security for many small, family farms. However, the industrialization of organics, with government assistance, has greatly diminished the value of the organic niche. For the most part, small, family farms have been forced to create their own local niches.

Mock’s single measure of success seems to be “financial stability.” She fails to recognize that people choose occupations for reasons other than making money. Why do highly competent people take low-paying jobs with nonprofit organizations or as nurses, teachers, firemen, or policemen? They don't get paid enough to justify their work, and like small farmers, many eventually do burn out and quit. But people still choose such occupations because they want to feel good about what they are doing to make a living—they want to make a positive difference. I think that is why most families on small farms choose to farm. Financial security is not their sole measure of success.

That said, many families on small farms do need to make a living farming. As Mock observed, many such families have worked long and hard to do so but have not succeeded. However, such failures are common for all types of small businesses, not just farming. As reported by Forbes Magazine, “Studies have shown a full 20% of small businesses fail in their first year, 30% in their second year, and 50% by year five. A full 70% of small businesses don’t make it past their tenth birthday.” I don’t know whether the odds of success are better or worse for small farmers.

I think it's good for Mock and others to write about the realities of starting a small farm today. However, there is a big difference between acknowledging that something is difficult and suggesting that it can’t be done. I have said many times that farming sustainably is one of the most physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging occupations anyone can undertake. I don't think anyone should choose to be a farmer unless they feel that farming is their "calling," that their purpose in life is to be a farmer. For those who are "called," I believe there will be a way to make their farms work financially.

Government programs should make it easier, rather than more difficult, for those who choose to farm sustainably. As I have explained repeatedly in previous posts, industrial agriculture fails every test of ecological, social, and economic sustainability. As I have referenced previously, the report Regenerative Farming and the Green New Deal provides a framework for transitioning farm policy from supporting industrial agriculture to facilitating sustainable family farms.

Finally, I agree with Mock that farmland in the U.S. was taken by force from Native American, African American farmers have been deprived of farmland, and many small farmers of the past have exploited the land and haven't always been good neighbors. I agree also that the days of the fiercely "independent" small family farmer are behind us. I think small farmers in the future must have personal integrity and must work together if they are going to succeed economically, socially, and ecologically. Families with small farms can gain many of the economic efficiencies of larger farms, without compromising their ecological or social integrity or their quality of life, if they are willing to work together for the greater good of society and the future of humanity.

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