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Do we need family farms?

Tom Lauridson
Vice President
Rocky Mountain Farmers Union

As we begin to frame debate around the 2002 farm bill, the farm community must raise important issues to decision makers. Issues, that in the end, need to focus on a primary question – Do we really need to save family farms?

We hear more and more that bigger is better – mergers among oil companies, banks, and manufacturers are supposed to cut costs to consumers and increase efficiencies. Many of us buy into that notion – literally – by buying at big discount stores instead of our local hardware or clothing store. So, aren’t big farms better than smaller family farms?

The argument most often used in defense of bigness is efficiency. In some cases, that is true; but, ten hardware stores owned and managed by ten individuals do not require upper and middle management as would a ten-store chain.

The owner of a single store is a member of the community. He cares about the condition of other local businesses and is involved in community activities. In order to stay in business, this store must respond to local needs.

If we speak of the fabric of rural America, then family farms are the stitch work. We have all seen the trend in rural communities – as farm numbers go down, communities become weak. Communities are unable to maintain services, schools, and in some cases, unable to act together and for each other in times of crisis.

It appears that a result of the pricing efficiencies of big business and big farm operations is often the loss of community spirit and values. We have all seen the arrival of a big discount store killing local businesses for miles around…resulting in the low price, one-size fits all, ‘I don’t work in this department’ approach of distant managers.

It is not always efficiency that results in larger businesses, but pricing leverage created by bigness itself. Small farms are put at a competitive disadvantage because they lack volume discounts and contract-farming opportunities of large farms.

With the current trend towards bigness in mind, the questions we must ask are –
• What will our country be like when most smaller family farms are gone?
• Will large farm operators be as concerned about the future of the land as a resource to pass down to children and grandchildren?
• Will a few farm operations be willing to respond, for example, to a demand for locally grown beef, a few head at a time, or sell vegetables at a farmers market?
• Is the land and the community well served by a few absentee farm owners?
• Is America going to be a better place with rural communities decimated and their former population packed into cities?

Our national experiment with consolidating land and businesses into fewer and fewer hands is really pretty new, but as individuals we have almost all accepted the benefits of intense price competition that results from bigness in our shopping patterns. We have not been very good at peering into the future and seeing where the consolidation trend is leading.

I don’t like what I see in the future, especially for agriculture.

Unless conditions change, it is easy to imagine that in 20 years this will be a country in which a very few, very large farms control the vast majority of land and food production. The remaining producers will either be part time or subsistence farmers, generating a very small amount of the total food production. The ‘family farm’ will be a museum piece.

And, that’s O.K., if we are willing to accept the possibility that –
• food could become a larger part of the average family’s budget;
• farmland will not be cared for as if it is a family treasure to be handed down to successors and farmed long into the future; and
• the majority of rural communities will not survive the loss of most of the remaining farm families of today.

The 2002 farm bill is not just a five- or seven-year policy package but may well determine the answers to these questions. I hope that our society has the opportunity to understand the implications of their choice.