“When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers therefore are the founders of human civilization.”
— Daniel Webster, 1840.
“The family farmer, along with mom and the flag and apple pie, is one of the cultural heritages of our nation. At the same time you find that the cottage industry that is represented by family farmers is just not capable of providing food.”
— Tenneco executive, 1973.
Every week, hundreds of farms go out of business. Only half the farms that were viably operating in 1950 exist today. In less than thirty years, three million farms have disappeared.1 The story of their demise is one of America’s greatest tragedies.
There is no need for sentimentality about the passing of the family farm. But neither can we view this event without a sense of personal and collective loss, for that loss is very real. Most of all, however, there is no reason to interpret the decline of small farms as inevitable. Small farms have bowed not to efficiency or modernity, but to bigness and power.
In a 1973 study of farm efficiency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture noted that “we are so conditioned to equate bigness with efficiency that nearly everyone assumes that large-scale undertakings are inherently more efficient than smaller ones.” Big farms, so the reasoning goes, are taking over because they can produce more food more cheaply than small family farms. But USDA researchers found that just the opposite is true. They discovered that most of the economic benefits associated with size (such as savings from bulk buying and using large machinery) can be achieved by “the one-man fully mechanized farm.” The USDA study concluded that the most efficient food producers in the nation are the small family farmers.2
As farms become bigger, so do the problems of absentee management and coordination. When management is far removed from the actual farming, there is a greater chance of error and inefficiency. There is some knowledge one can gain only by personally tilling the land. No matter how you look at it, the small family farm is the most efficient unit in agriculture today. Equally important, the food grown there is worth eating. When was the last time that a Tenneco or a Del Monte entered its produce in the county fair?
Jim Hightower, one of the country’s most vigorous defenders of the family farm, poses a simple question, “Who will sit up with the corporate sow?” to illustrate an important point. Farming is an art that requires dedication and love of the land as well as hard work. The nation has long admired its family farmers for just these qualities. It is hard to imagine the corporate “farmer,” with his attache case and three-piece suit, tending to a sick calf on a cold night.
Clearly, small farms are going out of business for reasons unrelated to their ability to produce the best and the cheapest food. They are being squeezed on both sides by giant corporations that control the supplies they need to produce a crop — the machinery, pesticides and fertilizers — as well as the price they receive for that crop.
Direct corporate control of farming and corporate production through contracts with “independent” farmers now accounts for the production of:
51 percent of fresh vegetables
95 percent of processed vegetables
70 percent of potatoes
85 percent of citrus fruits
100 percent of sugar cane and sugar beets
98 percent of fluid grade milk
97 percent of broilers
54 percent of turkeys3
If the trend continues, the corporations will soon have us eating most of our food out of their hands. The USDA predicts that, by 1985, only cash grain crops, hay and range livestock will be under independent control.4
Corporations that control such a large share of the market have the power to dictate terms to small farmers on pre-printed take-it-or-leave-it contracts. The terms are not likely to be favorable to the farmer, but in areas where only one or two corporations are buying, no other choice exists.
While the farmers’ equipment and supply costs have shot up, predictably, the price paid to farmers has lagged behind. Hightower notes that “it was not until 1972 that farmers nationwide finally got back up to the income level that they had been at in 1952. In the meantime, the cost of farming had gone up 110 percent, and the debts owed down at the bank had risen 355 percent.”5 Although foreclosure and delinquency rates for big farms are higher than those for family farms,6 the small farms are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain the credit often needed just to begin planting. Government research and service programs, rarely aimed at alleviating the problems of small farmers, have given added power to the giant farms and the corporations behind them. Added to this are the rising land costs, partially a result of land speculation and the proliferation of tax-loss farming schemes among rich people seeking to lower their tax bills.
The survival of the family farm is important not just because it is economically efficient. It is important for the life and vitality the farms bring to rural communities — and, indirectly, to our cities. When a small farm goes out of business, its problems don’t disappear — they move to the city.
A 1946 study found that the effect of large-scale farm operations is “to create a community made up of a few persons of high economic position and a mass of individuals whose economic status, security and stability are low, and who are economically dependent directly on the few. In the framework of American culture, more particularly that of industrialized farming, this creates a situation where community participation and leadership, economic well-being and business activities are relatively impoverished.”7
A more recent study presented at Congressional hearings in Washington found that the transition from family farms to large-scale or corporate farms results in:
- A decline in the number and variety of civic groups and special interest organizations.
- An absolute decline in church membership and contributions and perhaps a decline in church-related activities.
- Increased abandonment of farmsteads with a resultant decrease in local tax revenue.
- An absolute decline in the quantity or volume of personal and family-related goods and services.
- A decline in the number and variety of community businesses.
- Increased concentration of wealth and a decline in the level of living for the average family.
- Increased concentration of land ownership, in the hands of a few.8
A healthy rural America, and ultimately, the social fabric of the nation, depends on the well-being of our two and a half million family farms. As we have seen, power, not efficiency, rules the roost in rural America. As long as a handful of corporations control agricultural supplies as well as what is done with food after it leaves the farm, we will continue to have grocery shelves full of junk food and the TV airwaves full of junk food commercials. And in spite of food prices soaring upward, the “for sale” signs will continue to go up on ever-increasing numbers of family farms.
- “Some Problems Impeding Economic Improvement of Small-Farm Operations: What the Department of Agriculture Could Do,” Report to Congress by the Comptroller General of the U.S., August 15, 1975. p. 3.
- “The One-Man Farm,” by Warren R. Bailey. U.S. Department of Agriculture, August 1973. p. 1.
- “The Case for the Family Farmer,” by Jim Hightower. The Washington Monthly, Vol. V, No. 7, September 1973. p. 28.
- “Interrelations in Our Food System,” by Manley and Reimund. U.S. Department of Agriculture. February 21, 1973. p. 9.
- Eat Your Heart Out: How Food Profiteers Victimize the Consumer, by Jim Hightower. Crown Publishers, NY: 1975. p. 136.
- “Future of the Family Farm,” by Don Paarlberg. Remarks before the 55th Annual Convention of the National Milk Producers Federation, Bal Harbour, Florida, November 30, 1971. Government Printing Office, Washington: 1971. p. 12-13.
- “Small Business and the Community: A Study in Central Valley California on the Effects of Scale Farm Operation,” Report of the Special Committee to Study Problems of American Small Business, U.S. Senate, December 23, 1946. Reprinted by the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business, Subcommittee on Monopoly, 90th Congress, 2nd Session in Role of Giant Corporations, Part 3A—Appendixes, Corporate Secrecy: Agribusiness, 1968. Pages 112 and 114 of the original study; pages 4582 and 4584 of the reprint.
- Statement of Professor Richard D. Rodefeld, “The Current Status of U.S. ‘Corporate’ Farm Research,” in Hearings on H.R. 11654 (Family Farm Act), March 22, 1972. p. 70 and 71.