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The Small Farm Revolution

by John Ikerd, extension professor and coordinator of the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Program, University of Missouri

American agriculture is in crisis. Until recently, the crisis had been a quiet one. No one wanted to talk about it. Thousands of farm families were being forced off the land, but we were being told by the agricultural establishment that their exodus was inevitable - in fact, was a sign of progress. Those who failed were simply the victims of their own inefficiency - their inability to keep up with changing times, their inability to compete.

But in fact, it's not inefficiency or resistance to change that is forcing families to leave their farms. It's our collective obsession with our short-run self interests. It's our worship of markets as the only true arbitrators of value. It's our acceptance of corporate greed as the only road to true prosperity. This crisis was neither inevitable, nor was it a sign of progress. The people of America need to know the truth. The time for quietness has passed.

The current crisis reflects a brazen attempt by the giant corporations to take control of agriculture away from family farms, to move beyond specialization and standardization, to centralize command and control - to complete the industrialization of agriculture. This final stage of industrialization is not only destroying the lives of farm families; it's polluting the natural environment, depleting the natural resource base, and destroying rural communities. The industrialization of agriculture is not good for America. The people need to be told the truth.

The food and fiber industry most certainly has a future, people will always need food, clothing, and shelter, and someone will provide them. But there will be no future for farming - not true farming - not unless we have the courage to challenge and disprove the conventional wisdom that farmers must get bigger, give in to corporate control, or get out. But there are better alternatives for farmers and for society. We must find the courage to challenge the conventional wisdom. It's time for a revolution in American agriculture.

Sustainability: The New Revolution

This new American Revolution is being fomented under the conceptual umbrella of "sustainability." In farming, we talk about the sustainable agriculture movement, but there are also movements in sustainable forestry, sustainable communities, sustainable development and sustainable society in general.

The sustainability movement presents a direct challenge to conventional economic thinking. Sustainability includes concern for self-interests, but it goes beyond to protecting interests that are shared with others, and the interests of future generations in which we have not even a share. All of the sustainability movements share a common goal, to meet the needs of the present while leaving equal or better opportunities for those to follow - to apply the Golden Rule across generations.

Sustainability and Small Farms

Sustainable farms will not only be independently owned, but they will be smaller farms as well. Sustainable farming 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 with, if not absolutely require, a large number of smaller farms rather than a small number of large farms.

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 this type of uniformity. Biotechnology is but the latest in a long string of futile efforts to force uniformity upon nature.

But nature is diverse. Large-scale production creates inherent conflicts with this diverse nature - and inherently 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.

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 consumer food dollars by performing 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 90 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.

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. The best alternative for American farmer s is neither to get bigger, nor give in to corporate control, nor to get out.

The best alternative for American farmers, and for society in general, is for farmers to find ways to farm more sustainably - to balance economic, ecological, and social concerns, to find harmony among self interests, shared interests, and altruistic interests, to pursue their "enlightened" self-interests instead of greed. American farmers need to be told the truth about their alternatives. Farms of the future must be smaller, not larger.

It's Time for a New American Revolution

Corporate industrialization will do for agriculture as it has done for other sectors of the economy. It will pollute the natural environment - the water, the soil, and the air. Farmer and farm workers, like factory workers, will suffer ill health, low pay, and eventual abandonment - as agri-industries find other people in other places who will work even harder, in more dangerous environments, for even less pay. The safety and healthfulness of the food supply will continue to deteriorate as a consequence of the inevitable race to the bottom, to see which corporation can produce the most stuff the cheapest, so they can drive the competition out of business and raise prices to whatever level they choose.

Small businesses allow people to express their individuality and creativity - to use their unique abilities to think and create. The good paying new jobs in the general economy are being created by small businesses, while the old industrial giants continue to downsize and lay off workers by the thousands. If the future is to be better than the past, it must belong to the small, not the large. The future of farming belongs to the small farms, not to the large. The people need to be told the truth.

Source: Excerpted with the author's permission from a keynote presentation at the Second National Small Farm Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 12-15, 1999.

John Ikerd's web site