Why We Need (Real) Family Farms

Amanda and I had to miss the Southern SAWG (Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group) meeting in Chattanooga this year, and we regret that. I regret it more after reading this morning the keynote address to the conference from John Ikerd. He stated in clear and articulate language what many of us have been thinking, and I’m grateful for that.

Ikerd is Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics at the University of Missouri, and his address, entitled “Why Sustainable Family Farms are Critical to the Future of the World,” is invaluable reading for those who lament the loss of family farmers and who understand why farming matters. One of the first points Ikerd makes is that the term “family farm” has become corrupted (my word, not his) so that we use it for any farm owned by a family, even a large family corporation. In reality, says, Ikerd, “[m]any of these so called family farms are actually agribusinesses, meaning they are operated primarily, if not solely, to maximize the economic bottom line. Many so called independent family farms actually operate under comprehensive contracts with large agribusiness corporations that dictate virtually all aspects of the operation. In the world of agribusiness, the ‘family farm’ of Jefferson and Smith is considered economically obsolete.” Ikerd says the best definition of family farm, at once more accurate and less precise, is one in which the family and the farm are inseparable and shape each other. That is, the farm would be fundamentally different if a different family were caring for it, and the family would be fundamentally different if it were caring for a different farm or engaged in doing different work. When this is true for a farmer, he says, farming becomes deeply personal.

Such farmers have a personal incentive to live and work in harmony with the nature of their particular farm – its soil, topography, climate… They develop the judgment and discretion needed to cope with the vagaries of nature, thus becoming independent entrepreneurs. Such farmers also have personal incentives to work hard and be honest in their dealing with other[s]. They have [a] strong sense of personal and spiritual connectedness with the land. They feel responsible for passing the farm on to the next generation as healthy and productive as when it was passed to them. They have the same commitment to permanence as those early pioneers of organic farming and those who started the natural foods movement. Such farmers have the human capacity for ecological and social integrity that corporate agribusinesses lack.

Ikerd states what he calls “cold, stark reality:” real family farms are the only way we humans are going to survive. The petroleum-slurping agribusinesses that pass for farms today are part of a food system that cannot continue; we use ten calories of energy in the form of plowing, fertilizing, poisoning, watering, cooling, freezing, trucking, and flying for every one calorie of food energy that actually makes it to human mouths. We just can’t keep doing that. The basic problem, says Ikerd, is that our economic model is inherently individualistic and short-term in its outlook. “In the process, we have also lost our sense of interdependence with each other and with the earth. As an act of faith, we have accepted the modern economic dogma that the pursuit of our narrow individual self-interests would somehow serve the greater common good. We have lost our sense of ethical and moral responsibility as caretakers of society and of the earth.” So we have to find different ways of looking for and rewarding the important work of preparing for the future welfare. “Questions of sustainability seemed a bit esoteric and theoretical until people began to awaken to the ecological, social, and economic challenges confronting today’s society.” Challenges like the growing gap in wealth between the rich and poor.  “Over the past 40 years, the income share of the poorest 20% of people in the world decreased by almost 50%, while the incomes of the richest 20% increased by 40%.” Ikerd encourages farmers to move with each decision they make toward an ideal, one in which they become less and less dependent on fossil fuel energy and work more and more to find ways to work with the pure energy of the sun. (Can you see now why folks like us, the authors of

LettheSunWork.com, get into this stuff?). Perhaps most importantly, Ikerd says, sustainable family farms and farmers are helping all people, not just farmers, find ways of reconnecting with the earth and with each other. They serve as an ideal, a metaphor, for the rest of the economy and society, a society where people acknowledge and celebrate the many ways they depend on each other. At its heart, he says, not only does our society need sustainable family farms for food; it needs them for democracy itself.

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