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Director's Message: Prospects for the Small Family Farm

Commercial farming involves many risks - production risks and market risks - all of which put the operation itself at risk. There have been many episodes of farm failures in U.S. history, the greatest of which, the Great Depression, incited massive government intervention to prop up prices and incomes, to extend credit and advice, and to enhance the development of technology. Nonetheless, there has been a steady attrition of family farmers, particularly smaller-scale family farmers. Between 1987 and 1997, the number of farms decreased from 2,213,000 to 2,059,000, a loss of 154,000 farms. Meanwhile, the average farm size increased from 451 to 470 acres.

The rate of attrition has rung alarm bells and in response, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman has appointed a National Commission on Small Farms to conduct hearings across the U.S. Commission members will identify problematic areas and make recommendations regarding the kinds of policies and programs that can make an impact in enhancing prospects for the viability of small family farms in the next century. So far, the Commission has held hearings in Memphis, Tennessee, and in Sioux Falls, S.D. Other hearings are planned for Albany, New York; Portland, Oregon; Sacramento, California, and Washington, D.C.

One of the key problem areas for farmers is finance. Access to finance and the terms and conditions on which finance is obtained can enhance or doom the performance of small, commercial farms. In this issue, articles and items on farm finance by Steve Blank, Extension economist, and Center staff highlight the role and management of finance in small farm operations.

Contesting Models of Agriculture Family Farms vs. Plantations

For thousands of years, humans secured their sustenance through foraging and hunting. But foraging and hunting tend to be rather labor intensive, somewhat inefficient food production systems. Eventually, humans learned to domesticate wild species and to systematically cultivate them. The Egyptians, in particular, were spectacularly successful in utilizing the bounties of the Nile to irrigate and fertilize fields of produce.

Agriculture has involved the technical aspects of growing, harvesting and postharvest activities. But, as importantly, it has involved the institutional and cultural aspects of how the system is organized - how people relate to the land, and to each other. Along a continuum, we could array systems such as subsistence family farming, subsistence communal farming, small commercial family farming, large commercial family farming, and large, commercial corporate farming - including plantation agriculture. Apart from the scale and nature of farming systems we can also codify systems in terms of ownership patterns - tenants vs. owners.

Plantation agriculture and tenancy - sharecropping and cash-based, were prevalent in much of the world up to a few hundred years ago. But, in agrarian societies, land is the base of political and economic power, so as social consciousness evolved and with it a drive for freedom and individual empowerment, land reform policies broke up large feudal estates and enabled the distribution of land to family farmers.

The United States has experienced two contesting models of agricultural organization - the feudal plantation model imported from Western Europe and Spain, and the independent family farm model articulated by Jefferson and by the Homestead Act of 1862. Jefferson believed that democracy could be rooted in a nation of yeomen farmers - - the family homestead, where farmers owned the means of production and produced their own sustenance, with a possible excess for market. (But note that Jefferson himself was rooted in the plantation model and owned many slaves). The contradiction between the two models of agriculture eventually gave rise to the U.S. Civil War.

The southern plantations transformed themselves into sharecropping kingdoms, which did not resolve the contradictions and the abrogation of democratic and human rights inherent in their operation. But in the rest of the U.S., fami ily farming took greater hold. The National Commission will contribute to maintaining this tradition.