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A future of small farms

By John Ikerd

The creed of the Future Farmers of America begins with the words “I believe in the future of farming with a faith born not of words but of deeds.” I have spent much of my life trying to live by that creed, but I simply can no longer believe it is true. There is no future of farming – at least not of farming as we have known 
it – not if the dominant trends of today continue into the future.


People will always need food, clothing, and shelter, and someone will provide them. But there will be no future for farming -- not unless we have the courage to challenge and disprove the conventional wisdom that farmers must either get bigger or 
get out.


A continuing trend toward fewer and larger farms is evident in the 1997 Census of Agriculture. The total number of farms was reported down less than one percent from 1992. However, farmers who consider farming their principal occupation dropped nearly nine percent from 1992 — an even larger fall than between 1987 and 1992. Politicians who were afraid of losing federal funds because of lower farm numbers got the census definition of farms changed. For example, a “farmer” in 1997 included people living in town whose only farm income was a CRP payment or had as few as five horses stabled somewhere on a farm. The result was a 17 percent increase in farms with less than $10,000 in annual sales. Farms reporting $1 million or more in sales increased by more than 63 percent in the five-year period. In general, farms with more than $250,000 and less than $10,000 in annual sales increased in numbers, but farms of all other sizes in between continued to decline. Thus, the trend toward fewer, larger farms continues.


This trend toward larger farms is driven by the industrialization of agriculture. The tools of industrialization are specialization, simplification, mechanization, and standardization, with a  centralization of command and control. Industrialization allows fewer farmers to control more land and labor by using more capital – more machinery and equipment and more commercial inputs. So, industrial farms are larger than their traditional counterparts.


That farming has no future is not a popular view among those in the agricultural establishment. Conventional farming publications are filled with visions of a new high-tech future for farming. Technology is seen as the key. Bio-technology, genetically modified organisms of all sorts; precision farming, farming by computer-driven robots guided by global positioning systems -- these are hailed as the keys to the future of farming. The keys to the end.


Agriculturists brag that precision farming will allow a farmer to plan and program everything so that each crop in each section of a field gets precisely what it needs to grow at all times. The “work” of farming can be done by a “tractor driver” -- allowing the farmer to spend his or her time at a computer analyzing data and working out a better plan. Crop production of the future will work a lot like the “animal factories” of today. The work will be done by “hired hands.”


Agriculturists brag that bio-technology will allow the most desired genetic traits -- for both production and consumption -- to be designed into the genetic code of crops and livestock. With new designer genes, plants and animals will protect themselves from pests and disease and will grow at optimum rates to an optimum quality with a minimum of commercial inputs. The farmer need only plant the seed and wait for the crop to grow to harvest. Those farming with precision-farming robots won’t even have to plant and harvest.


But, if precision farming can be done from the farmer’s office, it can just as easily be done from someone’s corporate headquarters. Genetic engineering most certainly will take place in a corporate or university laboratory somewhere. The “gene jockeys” don’t need to see the crop or livestock, they just manipulate DNA. In the world of high-tech farming, the thinking part of farming will no longer take place on the farm. So what’s the farmer going to do?


High-tech production may produce lots of food and fiber, at least for a while. But, there will be no place for the farmer – the worker who also thinks, and the thinker who also works. If farmers of the future only sit and watch, they better not count on making many profits. The folks who program the computers and manipulate the genes – not the farmers -- will be the ones who are doing something creative, and they -- not the farmers -- will reap the profits for their efforts.


With genetics and marketing controlled by the large multi-national corporations, the “farmer” also may become corporately controlled. Some are counting on contracting as a means of staying in business in the high-tech future. But when they sign a comprehensive production contract, they have given up the right to make important decisions on their farm. Someone else will be calling the shots; deciding how much they get to produce, when to plant or place animals on feed, what to feed, how to control pests, when to harvest, and where to deliver. It no longer matters what the producer thinks is best. The fact that farmers may provide buildings, equipment, or land does not empower them, but instead enslaves them – particularly if they need contract payments to pay off loans. They are no longer a farmer, but have become a corporate “hired hand.”


Is organic farming sustainable?

Many farmers are seeking alternatives to industrialization, high-tech quick fixes, and corporate contracting. They are searching for a way of farming that has a future. The recent rapid growth in organic markets – reportedly 25 percent per year over the past several years -- makes organic farming a prime candidate for consideration. Growing organic markets and organic price premiums also have attracted attention from the giant corporations. The Hudson Institute’s Dennis Avery and a few other high-input junkies not withstanding, organic production has gained in both interest and credibility. The “o-word” -- a curse word in the agricultural establishment a few years ago --has become almost an “in-word.”


Unfortunately, the “S-word” remains a curse word in the vocabulary of most folks in the agricultural establishment. Sustainability is OK if it means a profitably, environmentally sound agriculture. Even Monsanto and DuPont have their “sustainable agriculture” programs. But, once you start bringing in the social issues – family farms, rural communities, quality of life, ethics and values – the establishment abandons sustainability. They have grudgingly accepted the fact that an agriculture that uses up its resource base and pollutes its environment is not sustainable. But, they claim industrial systems can be environmentally friendly. They balk at accepting the social dimension of sustainability, because any claims of being socially responsible they make quite simply are not credible. They want to sustain agriculture, and their own profitability, but feel no responsibility to sustain people through agriculture.


Organic farming is as old as agriculture. But, history indicates that organic – in and of itself – does not ensure sustainability. Civlizations have risen from fertile lands only to fall when the nutrients were depleted or crops destroyed by pest -- under farming systems that were organic by necessity. Thus, organic systems are not inherently sustainable. However, many still believe that ultimately all sustainable systems must be organic, even if all organic systems are not sustainable.

The sustainable agriculture movement evolved out of the organic community a decade or so ago. The evolution was an attempt to widen the circle of people involved in the search for systems of farming that will last, and thus, will be sustainable over time. The early organic advocates of sustainable agriculture probably still believe that all sustainable systems will be organic, but they have been willing to accept those taking alternative means in hopes of reaching a common end.

Advocates of organic and sustainable agriculture have generally agreed on purpose and principles, even if not always on means or methods. The generally accepted purpose of sustainable agriculture is to meet the needs of the those of the present while leaving equal or better opportunities for those of the future – to apply the Golden Rule across all generations. General agreement also exists concerning the principles of sustainability. Most agree that sustainable systems must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible – that all are necessary, and none alone or in any pair is sufficient. Up to this point, organic and sustainable ag have been held together by purpose and principles, but their continuing in harmony may be in jeopardy.


Many of the new organic farmers, see organic mostly as a matter of economics. Some conventional farmers have land coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program. Much of this land has not had pesticides or inorganic fertilizer applied to it in more than three years, and thus, could qualify quite easily for organic farming. Other conventional farmers are going broke producing basic commodities and are looking for any profitable alternative. Large-scale, corporate farming operations see organic as a growth market to be exploited for as long as it lasts. Organic standards debates over use of biotechnology, sewage sludge, and irradiation were all reflections of conventional and industrial interests in organic farming. Thus, many conventional farmers and corporations alike may be looking at the organic production as an immediate, short-run economic opportunity. They may not see organic as a means to the end of a more sustainable agriculture.


Even the traditional “organic community” is no longer of one mind. Most agree that they want to protect their markets from industrialization. But they don’t necessarily agree on whether organic markets should remain niche markets or become mass markets. If organic markets become mass markets, they eventually will become industrialized markets. And industrial production is inherently unsustainable – regardless of the inputs and practices approved or used. It makes little difference whether “industrial organic” systems emerge as existing organic producers become corporate giants or as current corporate giants capture the market. Neither will be sustainable.


Some see wisdom in keeping organic markets as niche markets -- preventing their industrialization -- but still see no particular relevance in linking niche markets with ecological niches for production. Organic farming, to them, is defined by a set of rules they must follow to exploit various niches of eco-conscious consumers. Niche markets to them represent opportunities to sustain profitability by offering something unique – something that can’t be mass-produced and for which there are no close substitutes. As long as they maintain their uniqueness, they can sustain their profits.


But, can they sustain production? For production to be sustainable, the system must be ecologically sound as well as profitable and socially responsible. The process of production must be compatible with the ecology of the place of production. Niche markets will be sustainable only if the means of production are tailored to conform to their ecological niches. Those who violate the ecological principles of sustainability will not be able to sustain their uniqueness, and ultimately will not be able to sustain profitability. Examples abound of highly successful enterprises, serving niche markets by means compatible with their places, failing miserably when they attempted to expand outside of their niches. Some expanded beyond their market niches, but others failed because they moved outside of their unique ecological places of production.

Those organic farmers who continue to pursue organic farming as a means for sustainability will continue to travel the road of enlightenment and human progress. They will help build an agriculture that is ecologically sound and socially responsible, as well as economically viable. Those who exploit current economic opportunities for short run self interest will travel a different road to the future – a road that most certainly dead-ends beyond some near or distant curve.


Are small farms more sustainable?

Sustainability is a product of balance, or harmony, among the ecological, economic, and social dimensions of a farming system. A smaller farm lacking this harmony is less likely to be sustainable than a larger farm that is more in harmony. But there are logical reasons to believe that balance and harmony will be easier to achieve on smaller farms rather than large farms – other things similar if not equal.


Nature is inherently diverse. Geographic regions are different, watersheds are different, farms are different, and fields are even different -- both among and within. Industrial agriculture treats fields, farms, watersheds and even regions as if they were all pretty much the same. Certainly, industrial systems are fine-tuned a bit here and there to make production practices of one region fit another. Each state has a bit different set of best management practices, and some further adjustments are made from farm to farm and field to field. But, the fundamental systems of conventional production are all pretty much the same.


The same breeds and varieties, fertilizers and feeds, pesticides and antibiotics, machinery and equipment, and business and marketing strategies are used across fields, farms, and watersheds, in all regions of the country. The goal of research is to find universal solutions to common problems -- to find ways to twist, bend, and force nature to conform to some universal production and distribution process. Industrial, large-scale mass production requires uniformity.


Large-scale production creates inherent conflicts with this diverse nature – and threatens sustainability. Farms that conform to their ecological niches avoid such conflicts. Some ecological niches may be large, but most are quite small. Current concerns for agricultural sustainability are based on strong and growing evidence that most farms have already outgrown their ecological niches and could be more sustainable if they were smaller.


Conventional wisdom is that most markets are mass markets, and thus, farms must be large – or if not must market collectively. The conventional wisdom is wrong. Markets are made up of individual consumers, and as consumers – as people – we are all different. We don’t all want the same things. In fact, each of us actually prefers something just a little bit different, and thus, values the same things a bit differently. Mass markets are created by lumping together a lot of people who are willing to accept the same basic thing – even though they might not prefer them. If mass markets can be created, the food system can be industrialized, and dollar and cent food costs will be lower. The lower price is a bribe to consumers to accept something other than what they actually would prefer. Typically, they must be coerced as well as bribed to accept what the industrial system has to offer. That’s why Americans spend more for advertising and packing of food than they pay the farmer to produce it.


Eighty cents of each dollar spent for food goes for processing, transportation, packaging, advertising and other marketing services. One key to economic sustainability of small farms is to capture a larger share of the consumers’ food dollar by outperforming some, and bypassing others, of these marketing services. Farmers currently get only about 10 cents of each food dollar as a return for what they contribute to production, the other 10 cents goes for purchased inputs. By tailoring production to consumer niche markets, and selling more directly to consumers, small farmers have an opportunity to make more profits without becoming big farmers.


The conventional wisdom is that niche-marketing opportunities are limited and can support only a handful of farmers. Once again, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Since all people want something slightly different, the ultimate in niche marketing would be to give every individual precisely what they want. All consumer markets are made up of individuals. Thus, all markets in total are made up of niche markets. The question is not how many niches exist, but instead how many different niches does it make sense to serve? The relevant answer, at least at present, is that more than enough market niches exist to support as many small farmers as might choose to direct-market to consumers. A lack of niche markets need not place a lower limit on the size of farms. Farms can be as many and as small as needed to accommodate the niches of nature.


The most compelling argument in support of sustainable farms being smaller is that sustainable farms must be more “intensively” managed. Wendell Berry puts it most succinctly in his book, What are People For, “...if agriculture is to remain productive, it must preserve the land and the fertility and ecological health of the land; the land, that is, must be used well. A further requirement, therefore, is that if the land is to be used well, the people who use it must know it well, must be highly motivated to use it well, must know how to use it well, must have time to use it well, and must be able to afford to use it well.” Intensive management is possible only if farmers have an intensive relationship with the land – if they know it, care about it, know how to care for it, take time to care for it, and can afford to care for it – only if they love it.

Industrial agriculture degrades the relationship between the farmer and the land. Extensive management makes it possible for each farmer to make more profits in total, even if profits per unit of production are less. But, as the attention of each farmer is spread over more land, more laborers, and more capital, each acre of land, each worker, and each dollar receives less personal attention.


A small farm can be managed “intensively.” Intensive management allows a farmer to manage less land, using less labor, while handling fewer dollars. By managing fewer resources more intensively, the farmer is able to make more profit per unit of output, and thus, make more total profits – even if total production or output is less. As the farmer has more time and attention to give to each acre of land, each worker, and each dollar, the farmer’s relationship to the land and the people of the land is strengthened. The small farmer has an opportunity to know the land, to care about it, to learn how to care for it, has time to care for it, and can afford to care about it. The land on a small farm can be used well and can remain productive. A small farm can be sustainable.


Some ecosystems and farming systems are easier to manage effectively than are others, and thus, require less attention per unit of resources to manage sustainably. Those requiring less intensive management can be larger without sacrificing sustainability. For example a sustainable wheat/forage/cattle farm may be far larger than a sustainable vegetable/berry/poultry farm. But the sustainable wheat/forage/cattle farm is likely to be far smaller than the typical specialized wheat farm, forage farm, or cattle ranch. And the sustainable vegetable/berry/poultry farm is likely to be far smaller than the typical specialized vegetable farm, berry farm, or poultry operation.


Sustainable farms need not be small in terms of acres farmed or total production, but they will need to be managed intensively. And intensively managed farms will be smaller than will otherwise similar farms that are managed extensively. Neither land nor people can be sustained unless they are given the attention, care, and affection they need to survive, thrive, and prosper.


John E. Ikerd is Professor Emeritus of 
Agricultural Economics at the University of Missouri, Columbia.


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