Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The family farm

I think there are a few important dimensions for determining what constitutes a farm in this country: ownership, size/scale, practice+products, customer base and mission. I'll first take on ownership...

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The USDA defines a family farm as "any farm organized as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or family corporation." Over 90% of farms in this country are owned and operated by individuals or families. About 7% are owned by partnerships and only about 2% are run as corporations (but 90% of these are family owned). This came as a surprise to me, as I have heard more and more about the corporatization of agriculture and loss of farming as an institution in recent years.

So I think my misconceptions must arise from size of these operations, because "family farm" does not always mean small and "corporate farm" does not necessarily refer to a large-scale operation. In fact, many of the country's largest farms are family owned. Another misconception stems from the output of farms: while non-family farms account for only 2% of farms, they account for about 14% of agricultural sales.

The family farm, therefore, refers to a heterogeneous group: the idyllic rural homestead, the capitalist farmer who manages hundreds of acres of commodity mono-crops, the struggling farmer who takes annual losses and is in serious debt, the nth generation farmer who is keeping ancestral heritage alive, the farmer who manages a team of hired workers and sees a comfortable profit from sales without having to rely on off-farm income, and others.

But this heterogeneous group has declined drastically over the past half century: today there are approximately 2.2 million farms in the U.S., down from 7 million in 1950. A recent report claims that every week over 300 farmers leave their land. The combination of centralization of farms (i.e., existing in-debt farms being bought by bigger farms, keeping the operation and acreage in business, but centralizing the operational power into fewer hands) and loss in acreage dedicated to farmland (i.e., a loss of about 1 million acres of farmland annually in the past several decades) has contributed to this overall decline.

There must be some good news, some way to preserve this American tradition. I suppose the movement in food culture (toward organic, local, health-consciousness) and the refreshing interest in the "young" (meaning new) farmer movement can help revitalize a shrinking occupation, lifestyle, pastime, ancestral heritage, whichever you decide to call it.

But given these statistics, there is more to consider than ownership if we want to save our food system. More on these other dimensions to come...

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