Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Saving the Small, Family Farm in America

10 August 2009

Most people in the USA, when they think of a farm, probably think of a farm much like my family's.  Although our farm has been planted in pasture for some time, prior to that the fields were terraced and plowed. 


Regardless of its size, whether 20 acres or 2,000 acres, the main thing (I think) is that most people in the USA think of a "farm" as a place where a family lives and makes a living from working the land.  Unfortunately, one can no longer assume that the food one eats comes from such a farm. 


The big picture is that in the USA, small family farms are becoming extinct.  What has taken their place are huge corporation-owned mega farms.  At some of these farms, for example, as many as 20,000 hogs are housed in one spot.

My personal belief is that if ordinary consumers knew what conditions are really like for animals on these farms, they would never purchase meat produced on them.  The animals are fed hormones and antibiotics that artificially cause them to gain weight faster; but that's not the worst of it.  Rendered parts of dead animals are mixed back into the animal feed, forcing the animals to eat things that God (and their vegetarian digestive systems) never intended. 

Think about it this way:  if the difference in price between the "all natural" chicken and the "ordinary" one is 50%, ask yourself what led to that price difference.  The difference is a monetary quantification of difference in quality between those two animals' feed and living conditions.  That difference in quality also translates into what goes into, and becomes part of, your body.  Do you want antibiotics, growth hormone, and antibiotic resistant bacteria to become part of what goes into your own body? 

For commodity crops like corn and beans, fields on industrial, mega-farms are sprayed with herbicides that kill all plants.  The fields are then sown with seeds from crops that have been genetically modified so that only that the type of seed is resistant to the herbicide.  It is a realistic fear that one of these freak genes may make its way into a weed plant, resulting in a weed that is resistant to all efforts to control it.

These mega farms also utilize only certain varieties of seeds that are grown specifically to optimize production and ship-ability.  Tomatoes and peaches are two crops that immediately come to mind when discussing shipability.  Delicate or unusual varieties such as Georgia Belle or Cherokee, which don't ship well, will never be found in a megafarm.  This reduces genetic diversity of the seed stock, ultimately making the food supply more vulnerable to various blights and diseases. 

It is also argued that corporate megafarms have little regard for workers and communities.  They are highly mechanized and employ as few workers as possible.  Moreover, U.S. migrant worker policy allows corporations with the wherewithal to import alien workers, who are then exempt (to their own detriment) from laws which protect citizen workers.   Industrialized farms treat each worker as one cog in an assembly line, having that worker do the same work over and over again for a low wage.  As such, workers require little training and are more expendable.  These low wage workers also have few protections that were traditionally afforded to workers in other industries.   

Mega farms have the same effect on small time farms that Wal Mart has on its small time business, except that Wal Mart is subsidized by American consumers rather than the U.S.Department of Agriculture.  

U.S.Department of Agriculture subsidies flow disproportionately to megafarms, reducing the production cost of commodities like corn and milk.  As a result partly of U.S. farm subsidies, it's cheaper to buy a fully processed McDonald's hamburger than it is to purchase a wholesome all-vegetable meal grown on the more environmentally friendly, "green" family farm next door.   


That's a gross oversimplification of the situation, of course.  Additionally, it paints the picture with a very broad brush stroke.  Some family owned farms are quite large, and some use sustainable, environmentally friendly agricultural practices (though they are few and far between). 

My main goal here not to provide painstaking detail but rather to paint with a broad brush, get you thinking, and to provide a starting point for further research (if you are interested).  But here is the meat of this blog post, the



One web page (click HERE), states (with supporting footnotes) the following facts:

  • According to the EPA, 3,000 acres of productive U.S. farmland are lost to development every day.
  • Between 1974 and 2002, the number of corporate-owned U.S. farms increased by more than 46 percent.
  • 82% of Americans are somewhat or very concerned about the decreasing number of American farms.
  • 85% of Americans trust smaller scale family farms to produce safe, nutritious food.
  • In the US, the average principal farm operator is 55.3 years old.
  • Between 2005 and 2006, the US lost 8,900 farms (a little more than 1 farm per hour)

A study by U.S. Department of Agriculture which shows the big picture is titled “A Time to Act: A Report of the USDA National Commission on Small Farms,” January 1998 (click HERE).   It recommends specific policy goals as being:

  • Policy Goal 1: Recognize the importance and cultivate the strengths of small farms;
  • Policy Goal 2: Create a framework of support and responsibility for small farms;
  • Policy Goal 3: Promote, develop, and enforce fair, competitive, and open markets for small farms;
  • Policy Goal 4: Conduct appropriate outreach through partnerships to serve small farm and ranch operators;
  • Policy Goal 5: Establish future generations of farmers;
  • Policy Goal 6: Emphasize sustainable agriculture as a profitable, ecological, and socially sound strategy for small farms;
  • Policy Goal 7: Dedicate budget resources to strengthen the competitive position of small farms in American agriculture;
  • Policy Goal 8: Provide just and humane working conditions for all people engaged in production agriculture

Here are some interesting facts from this report:

  • Even though only about one-third of U.S. farmers have participated in Federal farm programs, these programs have historically been structurally biased toward benefiting the largest farms. Farm payments have been calculated on the basis of volume of production, thus giving a greater share of payments to large farms, enabling them to further capitalize and expand their operations. Attempts to place caps on the amount of payments per farm have not resulted in their intended effects.
  • The present system of “transition” payments perpetuates the large-farm bias because the amount of payment is based on historical payment levels. A new risk management tool, “revenue insurance,” also perpetuates a large-farm bias through its provisions of coverage for the few major program commodities with no limit on the amount of coverage provided. Additionally, recent changes in Federal tax policy provide disproportionate benefits to large farms through tax incentives for capital purchases to expand operations. Large-scale farms that depend on hired farm workers for labor receive exemptions from Federal labor law afforded workers in every other industry, allowing them the advantage of low-wage labor costs.
  • Another popular statistic used to describe the structure of agriculture is the contribution of value of production per sales class. Farms with gross sales under $250,000 make up 94 percent of all farms. However, these farms receive only 41 percent of all farm receipts. In other words, out of 2 million farms, only 122,810 of the super-large farms receive the majority of farm receipts.


I have mentioned that industrial agribusiness is very different from small family farming.  A web link which compares and contrasts sustainable versus industrial farming is HERE

And now for what I hope will be the most helpful:



If you're a consumer, purchase in-season vegetables that are produced locally by a small scale producer.  Organic is best.  Ask your grocery store to support local agriculture by selling locally grown goods.  When a sign in your local supermarket says "grown locally," ask them "WHERE?"  (Also, ask your local grocery store to use environmentally friendly packaging materials.) 

It will cost more.  If you think about it, this is one area where you really want to pay for quality.  Would you rather eat food that has been grown on a large, mechanized industrial complex using lots of chemicals at great damage to the environment and to local people or would you rather support your local community in sustainable way of living?   

This leads to another issue.  Good food is expensive.  Ask your local farmer's market to arrange to accept food stamps.  Otherwise, eating healthy will only be an exercise for the wealthy. 


If you are a small farmer struggling to make it, and trying to find ways to stay on the farm, my sympathies are with you.  My personal belief is that the way forward must include educating consumers about the benefits of buying locally produced goods from small family enterprises. 

One successful co-op is Organic Valley Farmer's Cooperative.  Their web site (HERE, and specifically http://www.farmers.coop/resources/farmer-links/ ) gives information about the products they produce and what it takes to join. 


Another excellent web site is posted by the Koinonia community (click HERE ).  This site even has links to videos which may give you ideas about what to farm, practical tips on running a farm, and even videos devoted to how to market your farm products.   


A video worth watching

Last but not least, here is a trailer for a new video about industrial farming, called Food, Inc.   The web site for this video belongs to a group called Hungry For Change.  This is a documentary devoted to showing how "our nation's food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment."  I just watched the film, and it is quite enlightening.  If, after seeing the trailer, you would like to see the movie, click  HERE for show times.  

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1 comment:

  1. Well done. I agree with everything you say. I think there is reason for hope, although not for the reason most people think. My guess is that we are about to see a decline of the oil-soaked industrial agricultural system, simply because the oil it needs will no longer be available at a price that makes economic sense.

    When that happens, I believe we will see a dramatic increase in the numbers of family farms growing food for sale to their neighbors, and at prices that would make Whole Foods blush today. It's going to be a different world.


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