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Agricultural Policies and the Future of U.S. Family Farming

by Desmond Jolly, extension economist, UC Davis, and director, Small Farm Program

Increasing levels of concentration in the agricultural industry have led to growing concerns about the impacts of agricultural and economic policies on structural change in the food and agricultural systems. Agricultural policy has leaned in the direction of supporting large farms over smaller farms because larger farms tend to have lower per-unit costs. Typically, the cost of production of a standard commodity by this measure declines as the volume of production within a production unit increases. Thus, society is assumed to be better off if larger farms displace smaller, less efficient ones.

In contrast to this narrow definition of social welfare, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Commission on Small Farms cited a number of public benefits conferred by smaller scale, family farms in advocating for support of diversity in farm operations. The commission noted that 60 percent of all farms are less than 180 acres, and that responsible management of the soil, water, and wildlife encompassed by these operations is of significant public benefit.

In many rural communities, family scale farms provide an economic foundation, generating revenues, taxes, and jobs for local communities. Consumers connect with agriculture more readily through direct marketing efforts associated with smaller operations than through the more mainstream food chain, the packer/shipper or the supermarket.

Small farms are perceived by the commission as providing healthy environments to raise families. Smaller family scale operations contribute to greater diversity in agriculture diversity of ownership, cropping systems, biological organization, cultures and traditions. And, reiterating the Jeffersonian perspective, the commission noted that landowners who rely on local businesses and services for their needs are more likely to have a stake in the well-being of the community. In turn, local land owners are more likely to be held accountable for any negative actions that harm the community.

The Jeffersonian Vision

This perception of family scale farming as more conducive to a sustainable democracy and to sustainable communities was a founding principle of the Jeffersonian democratic vision. Thomas Jefferson extolled the merits of family farmers in hyperbolic terms: cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds. Whitney Griswold, a former president of Yale University, suggested in his book Farming and Democracy that a family farm structure is more conducive to democracy than larger estates.

In any case, it was the Jeffersonian vision and its core values that informed the development and adoption of agricultural policies from 1860 and for another 100 years. A host of public policies were embodiments of the Jeffersonian family farm concept, including the Homestead Act of 1862, the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, the Hatch Experiment Station Act of 1867, the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the Land Reclamation Act of 1902, the Clayton Act of 1914, and the Smith Lever Act of 1914.

The 1930s Depression era stimulated an exodus of people from family farms, and the strong industrial expansion caused by war production and the Cold War created a pull towards the cities' manufacturing and service industries.

Intensification of agricultural technology in the form of mechanization, petrochemicals, and genetic changes created excess capacity in agriculture, putting further pressure on the sustainability of family scale farming. By the 1970s, the public benefits of family scale farming focused attention on the diminishing diversity in U.S. agriculture.

In California, those concerns generated a renaissance of interest in family farming and produced a seminal report, The Family Farm in California: Report of the Small Farm Viability Project, submitted to the State of California in November 1977. A comprehensive treatment, the report advocated a new family farm policy for California, and resulted in a number of positive outcomes.

The report recommended more targeted involvement of the University of California in providing technical assistance and information to assist small producers with their operations. Another recommendation suggested that the University of California Cooperative Extension Service should design and implement cooperative education programs about farm cooperatives.

The report also advocated that the state aggressively establish programs for direct marketing for small farmers. California now has more than 300 farmers' markets, and the University of California operates state funded programs including the statewide Small Farm Program and the Center for Cooperatives.

A parallel concern about family scale farms was articulated at the national level. The USDA published "Structure Issues of America's Agriculture" in November 1979. USDA also held regional meetings on the topic between November and December 1979, and published their findings in "Dialogue on the Structure of American Agriculture." In January of 1981, USDA published "Time To Choose: Summary Report on the Structure of Agriculture." The Committee on Agriculture, House of Representatives 97th Congress, also held extensive hearings on the structure of agriculture in February and March 1981.

In his foreword to "A Time To Choose," then-USDA Secretary Bob Bergland described the prevailing philosophy of post-war federal policies: "We thought, we hoped, that if we helped the major commercial farmers who provided most of the food and fiber (and exerted most of the political pressure), the benefits would filter down to the intermediate sized and then the smallest producers." This one- size-fits-all paradigm is gradually giving way to the more realistic notion that research needs and educational approaches -- as well as technological appropriateness and financial and risk management products and strategies -- may vary with scale.

New Directions in Policy

For the first time, USDA specified small farms among the areas for allocating research and education grants in its requests for proposals for the National Research Initiative (NRI) and its Food Safety Initiative grants. The UC Small Farm Center successfully competed for a $180,000 grant under the Food Safety Initiative. In October 1999, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman issued a new regulation defining small farms and laying out guiding principles for its programs with respect to small farms. The USDA has had a Small Farms office for some time, but several events have catalyzed a renewed interest in and focus on the welfare of small and family scale farms. The Report of the Civil Rights Action Team made a large number of recommendations as to how USDA could more equitably make its programs available to all constituents in a nondiscriminatory manner. One of its key recommendations was the creation of a body to address on a more comprehensive scale the diversity of issues facing small and moderate scale farmers. Thus, Secretary Glickman named a National Commission on Small Farms in July 1997. In its report, "A Time To Act," the commission submitted 146 recommendations to Secretary Glickman. While the implementation has been deliberate, a number of outcomes can be noted, including the following.

  • The Secretary has issued a new regulation codifying the USDA definition of small farms and articulating the philosophy of support for small and moderate scale farms.
  • USDA Deputy Secretary Richard \tab \tab Rominger leads the Small Farm Coordinating Council, comprised of representatives from various USDA agencies.
  • The USDA-CSREES (Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Services) National Advisory Board on Research, Extension, Education and Economics is in the process of submitting a report on small farms to the USDA-CSREES Under-Secretary Miley Gonzalez.
  • Research and education requests for proposals, such as the National Research Initiative and the recent Food Safety Initiative, now make specific reference to small farms as a selective criterion.
  • The Agricultural Research Service is scrutinizing its research portfolio for impacts on small and family scale farming.
  • Among a broader public, inspired by the legitimizing umbrella of "A Time To Act," one detects burgeoning interest in small farms. The recent Second National Small Farm Conference held in St. Louis, Missouri, October 12-15, 1999, drew more than 700 participants mainly professionals from land grant universities, Cooperative Extension, USDA, and nonprofit organizations.
  • California's 1999 Farm Conference in Berkeley, November 7-9, 1999, drew more than 500 participants, and the UC Small Farm Workgroup's short course, "Starting and Sustaining A Small Farm,"drew 60 participants of diverse ages and ethnic backgrounds.
  • This expression of interest comports well with the results of a recent survey of diverse rural constituencies conducted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. When asked for their values for rural cultures, the respondents identified responsibility, the worth of rural people and rural places, opportunity, diverse ownership of the assets that create wealth, widespread prosperity, and stewardship of natural resources.

Freedom to Fail?

The 1996 Freedom to Farm Act was predicated on the idea that the world's population is expanding rapidly and that this expanding population would increase demand for agricultural products steadily and significantly. But reality doesn't always conform to theory. To begin with, the Asian economic crisis and the debacles in Eastern Europe caused a serious decline in demand for U.S. agricultural products. Secondly, other countries have proven as good as the U.S. at producing many basic commodities. The result? Increased supplies, decreased demand, lower prices, and declining farm incomes.

Freedom to farm is also a freedom to fail -- another powerful dialectic. There is increased sentiment to repeal or at least reform the 1996 Farm Bill -- particularly those aspects that constitute the Freedom to Farm initiative. But our government, and in particular Congress, seems up until now to be impervious to the prospects of a new exodus of family scale farmers. Their focus is on commodities, not farmers, and perhaps they think corporate farms can produce commodities as well as family farmers, if not better. So the ultimate beneficiaries of the new farm policy are not family scale farmers.

I have in my hand the Fall 1999 newsletter of the National Family Farm Coalition. It includes what might be regarded as a family farm manifesto containing many provisions endorsed earlier by the National Commission on Small Farms in "A Time To Act." The list of organizations that have endorsed the manifesto is extensive. It remains to be seen if policymakers are listening.