Saturday, December 3, 2011

The small-scale farm

I think size is really one of the most important dimensions of a farm (or of any enterprise, for that matter). I subscribe to Schumacher's philosophy that "small is beautiful" and have put it into practice in my work as a farmer and in most other aspects of my life. This is not easy to do - I was brought up in a culture that prizes thinking big, eating big, consuming big, expanding, taking over, up-scaling, super-sizing, conglomerating, growing beyond our means.

I don't think big-ness is inherently bad. For example, I don't think all of our friends and family who have thought of truly brilliant ways for our farm to expand are profit-driven capitalists, or looking to squash the little guys, or are disappointed with the small-scaleness of our operation. I just think they can't help it. It's automatic in today's world to come up with smart business ideas driven by efficiency and economies of scale, as opposed to smart business ideas driven by sustainability, ecology and human-scaleness.

Consider farming, where the dramatic expansion of industrial agriculture and the skyrocketing value of land for residential development has made it increasingly difficult for small farms to stay in business. Where farms in the first half of the 20th century employed over 14 million workers, they now employ just over 2 million. This is largely a result of the mechanization of agricultural work, which has enabled and required farms to expand their production in order to meet national and global food demands and to be able to stay afloat. Now the majority of farmers operate large-scale farms, often mono-cropping, feeding hundreds of people each (the average is 134 people per farm, up from 19 in 1940).

Our collective alienation from our food sources is associated with the big-ness of farms. We no longer get our eggs from our local chicken farmer, milk from our local dairy farmer, or greens from our local vegetable farmer (nor, for the most part, from our own backyards). While the "local food" movement is growing, most of us still buy our food from super markets that stock produce and groceries from large-scale farms from all over the world. This is not to say that local equals better - local just gives us as consumers a more direct connection to our food and an easier way to assess their practices and make decisions as conscious consumers.

The American Farm Bureau Federation has a typology for understanding size and scale of farms:

I. Small Family Farms (sales less than $250,000) - 90% of total farms in the U.S. which produce 27% of U.S. agricultural output. These farms include (a) retirement farms - small farms whose operators report they are retired; (b) residential/lifestyle farms - small farms whose operators report a major occupation other than farming (excludes limited resource farms) - 40% of total farms; (c) limited-resource farms - any small farm with: gross sales less than $100,000, total farm assets less than $150,000, and total operator household income less than $20,000; (d) farming occupation/lower-sales farms - small farms with sales less than $100,000 whose operators report farming as their major occupation (excludes limited-resource farms whose operators report farming as their major occupation); and (e) farming occupation/higher-sales farms - small farms with sales between $100,000 and $249,000 whose operators report farming as their major occupation.
II. Other Farms - 10% of farms in the U.S. which account for 73% of agricultural output. These farms include: (a) large family farms – farms with sales between $250,000 and $499,999; (b) very large family farms – farms with sales of $500,000 or more; and (c)  non-family farms – farms organized as non-family corporations or cooperatives, as well as farms operated by hired managers. 

I don't think this typology necessarily makes it easier to understand the difference between small-scale and large-scale farms in the U.S. But it does point out that the large majority of farms in this country are statistically considered "small-scale." And what measures do they use to assess this? Economic ones.

So 10% of our nation's farms are so big that they account for nearly three-quarters of all agricultural outputs, supported by government subsidies, locked into national or global trade agreements and dominating our collective consciousness of farming and agriculture. The remaining 90% can't go unnoticed... heck, we are living through the "99% movement." Small farms play an important role in saving our food system and American heritage. And if these small farms also practice sustainable, ecologically-conscious methods, we can go a long way in improving our national health and putting people back to work.

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