October 22, 2019

Family Farms Are Not the Future

“A farmer and his sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936.

Family farms are central to our nation’s identity. Most Americans, even those who have never been on a farm, have strong feelings about the idea of family farms — so much that they’re the one thing that all U.S. politicians agree on. Each election, candidates across the ideological spectrum roll out plans to save family farms — or give speeches about them, at least. From Little House on the Prairie to modern farmer’s markets, family farms are also the core of most Americans’ vision of what sustainable, just farming is supposed to look like.

But as someone who’s worked in agriculture for 20 years and researched the history of farming, I think we need to understand something: Family farming’s difficulties aren’t a modern problem born of modern agribusiness. It’s never worked very well. It’s simply precarious, and it always has been. Idealizing family farms burdens real farmers with overwhelming guilt and blame when farms go under. It’s crushing.

I wish we talked more openly about this. If we truly understood how rare it is for family farms to happen at all, never mind last multiple generations, I hope we could be less hard on ourselves. Deep down we all know that the razor-thin margins put families in impossible positions all the time, but we still treat it like it’s the ideal. We blame these troubles on agribusiness — but we don’t look deeper. We should. If we’re serious about building food systems that are sustainable and robust in the long term, we need to learn from how farming’s been done for most of human history: collaboratively.”

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