Family Farms: An Introduction

Information about family farms and their impact on agriculture.

barn with cows

Food From Family Farms, Not Global Supermarkets

Do you know where your food comes from? For most people, the answer would probably be the local supermarket or grocery store or, perhaps, some far-off country or region. Supermarkets from New York to Los Angeles overflow with a vast array of meats and dairy products, fruits and vegetables, often from all over the U.S. and the world. A global food system seems to have abolished scarcity, food in the U.S. remains cheap by comparison with other developed countries, and in consequence, the food system is taken for granted and has become invisible for most people. Most of us don’t connect the food we eat with having come from a farm or being grown by a farmer.

Yet there is a dark side to the productivity of global agriculture and food production. It has not abolished hunger, neither in the world where more than 963 million remain chronically malnourished nor in the United States where, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in 2007 there were 36.2 million people, including 12.4 million children, who experienced hunger and food insecurity. Millions of people eat too much or the wrong sorts of food, leading to epidemics of obesity and sickness. Farms in the developed world are going under in record numbers, and tens of millions of small-scale farmers in the South are being forced off the land. As news spreads of Mad Cow Disease, e-coli infections, and other food-borne illnesses, concerns are growing about the safety of our food.

Faced with these crises, a quiet revolution has begun in which consumers and farmers “are forging links to promote smaller-scale, more diversified, and ecologically sound agriculture.”1 Increasing numbers of consumers are buying food from local markets and farm stands. The U.S. independent family farm, the backbone of American democracy in Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian vision, is being rediscovered in all its benefits for the production of healthful food, self-reliant communities, and environmental conservation.

On the international level, the global campaign for food sovereignty asks the critical question: Who is in control of our seeds, food, land, water, and other basic life-sustaining resources? The campaign seeks to restore this control to individual nations, tribes, and peoples (ultimately to all those who produce food and those who eat it) from the World Trade Organization, multinational corporations, and international financial institutions that currently dominate the food system. The Via Campesina peasant movement is at the forefront of this campaign at the global level, and here in the US, the National Family Farm Coalition has been leading the food sovereignty movement, along with partners such as Grassroots International, Food First, WhyHunger, and others.

The Benefits Of Family Farms
Although the conventional wisdom is that small family farms are backward and unproductive, research is showing that small farms are much more productive than large farms if total output is considered rather than yield from a single crop. Integrated farming systems in which the small-scale farmer produces grains, fruits, vegetables, fodder, and animal products out-produce yield per unit of single crops such as corn (monocultures) on large-scale farms.2 These diversified farming systems are still widespread, although threatened, in the Global South, and they represent the kinds of U.S. farms that are supplying local and regional markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups, and – increasingly – local schools and other institutions.

Small-scale family farms provide great environmental and social benefits. They are more efficient in their use of land, they represent diversity of ownership, of cropping systems, of landscapes, and biodiversity. Farmers are the original stewards of the environment, of soil, water and wildlife. The production and consumption of food is linked in our history to communities and their social cohesion. As family farms disappear and local businesses and services depart, rural communities are hollowed out. Healthful nutritious food from local and regional farms is being replaced by food grown with massive inputs of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and transported over great distances.

In contrast to family farms, factory farms – otherwise known as Confined Animal Feedstock Operations (CAFOS) – in which thousands of cattle are administered antibiotics and growth hormones daily, are a disaster for our health, for the humane treatment of animals, and for the environment. These factory farms are now being exported to the developing world, to countries such as China and India. In the industrialized food system, a commodity such as corn commands such a low price that in order to make any profit it is being transformed into high fructose corn syrup which is present in multiple food items and contributes to the obesity epidemic. Our global food system only looks so productive and efficient “if we ignore the harmful side effects and external costs — the loss of soils, the damage to biodiversity, the pollution of water, the harm to human health.”3

Why Are Family Farms In Crisis?
If family farms are so much part of America’s past and provide all these benefits, why are they in crisis? Four million farms have disappeared in the United States in the last 50 years. Farm bankruptcies, foreclosures and forced evictions are everyday news. Since they form less than 2% of the population, farmers as a category are no longer included in the U.S. census. The 2002 census of agriculture from the USDA showed a small rise in the number of farms to 2.128 million, yet today farmers over 65 outnumber those under 35 by more than two to one. Farmers face unsustainable levels of debt. Mid-sized farms, especially, are threatened with disappearance in one or two decades unless policies change.4

Many see the shift of farming populations into the cities simply as inevitable progress, since it has happened also in Europe and Japan and is spreading to China, India and other developing countries. Yet this would be to ignore the public policy decisions that have facilitated and driven these processes. Agricultural policy in the U.S. has promoted a get big or get out policy that changed a system designed to prevent overproduction into one that encouraged it. Basic agricultural commodities — such as corn, wheat, and soybeans flooded the market, and prices plummeted. Suddenly unable to break even, many small farmers were forced to sell their land to ever larger and more consolidated industrial farm corporations. In the developing world, small-scale farmers were unable to compete with the cheap food products exported by corporate agribusiness. 

Agri-“culture,” based on care for the land, for farm animals, and for healthy food has been radically changed. Today the farmer is just one factor in a “giant food production, manufacturing, and delivery system called ‘agribusiness’.”5 Corporations such as ConAgra, Cargill, ADM, and Monsanto seek to reduce the number of farmers and expand the size of farms and the scope of agricultural markets. They replace farmers with machines and mixed crops with monocrops, as they supply the whole technological package of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, hybrid seeds and, more recently, genetically-modified plants. Farmers have to pay more for the production inputs they need – energy, fertilizer, etc. – and they receive an ever-diminishing price for their products, forcing them into debt or off the land. Meanwhile the costs of this process in terms of environmental pollution, human health, and rural disintegration are hidden, or covered over by further subsidies. When these hidden costs or “externalities” are counted, then our food system is not cheap at all. We need food and agriculture policies that pay farmers a fair price for their crops and turn around the current system.

A New Path
In an effort to keep their land and their family’s farm legacy, many farmers still try to compete in this marketplace, planting corn and soybeans on as many acres as they can — even as they know that the pesticides and chemical fertilizers are slowly killing their soil and driving them further into debt. When they decide they can’t continue to eke out a living from farming, they sell their land to a developer or to a larger farm operation.

In this environment, it is very hard for family farmers to remain independent, to grow healthy, nutritious fruits and vegetables, to remain on their land, or even to make a living as farmers. However, some family farmers have taken a big risk and committed to being or staying small and diverse (i.e., planting a variety of crops), and selling direct to consumers. Increasing numbers of consumers are buying food from farmers’ markets or community supported agriculture programs, and even institutions are forging connections directly with small-scale diversified farms. Many small farmers are surviving as a result of this model, though it’s difficult, in part because fruits and vegetables — unlike corn and soybeans — get no financial support from the government.

Farmers whose operations are too big to sell at farmers’ markets and too small to be part of industrial-scale operations are perhaps at greatest risk. These farmers would benefit from selling to large supermarkets or other institutions or preserving their crops through value-added processing. The midsized distribution and processing infrastructure that would support these farmers has all but disappeared in most areas of the US and needs to be rebuilt. A sign of hope for the future of family farms in the US is that new populations of farmers are appearing – new immigrants who bring with them farming knowledge and skills from their countries of origin, and young people who are rediscovering farming as they encounter the local food movement which is spreading in the US.

1 Helena Norberg-Hodge, Todd Merrifield, Steven Gorelick, Bringing the Food Economy Home: Local Alternatives to Global Agribusiness (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, and London: Zed Books, 2002), p.1.

2 Peter Rosset, The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture (Policy Brief, Oakland, CA: The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, 1999).

3 See Jules Pretty, Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature (London: Earthscan, 2002).

4 See Bringing the Food Economy Home, p. 127 footnote 1, for the varied definition of “small scale farmers”, where this may refer to size (from a few acres to a few hundred acres), or to annual farm income, where over 60 percent of farms in the U.S. report gross annual sales of less than $20,000, although the USDA considers gross annual sales of less than $250,000 as small. “Mid-sized farms” are working farms where the chief source of income and primary occupation is farming. USDA calls them “large family farms: or “intermediate farms”. Their size is between 100 and 1,000 acres, and over 80 percent of farmland in the U.S. is still managed by these farmers, but they are threatened with the disappearance in the next couple of decades. For more information see

5 A.V. Krebs, “Corporate Takeover of Agriculture,” in Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, edited by Andrew Kimbrell (Washington, Covelo, London: Island Press, 2002), p.308.

Updated 11/8/2010