Farm Economy State of the Union Address
3rd of 3 parts: A new breed of farmers

By John Ikerd

On November 9th John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri, gave the keynote address to the Tilth Producers conference in Yakima, Washington. His talk, "The Family Farm on the Cutting Edge," provides an incisive analysis of industrial agriculture and the emergence of what he calls "the New American farmer."

We've divided his address into three parts. In part one, Professor Ikerd described the increasing corporate control of U.S. agriculture, which has resulted in exploitative contract farming, reduced farm incomes, increased dependence on food imports and rural pollution. In part two, he discussed the growing number of Americans who now supporting farming that is good for farmers, animals, communities and the environment.

In part 3, John describes the new farmers emerging, farmers nterested in community, collaboration and stewardship.

Part 1, November 27, 2002: The logical consequences of industrial agriculture.
Part 2, December 3, 2002: A growing interest in sustainable farms.

DEC. 13, 2002: The increasing corporate control of agriculture today is no longer a reflection of greater efficiency or lower cost of production costs for industrial production methods. Instead, it is a reflection of the ability of the giant corporations to enhance their profits by controlling global markets for agricultural commodities. Corporatization brings a century of agricultural industrialization to its logical conclusion, spelling the impending end of the agricultural industrialization process. After corporatization will come something fundamentally new and different. The corporatization of agriculture, thus, creates an opportunity to develop a new and fundamentally better paradigm for farming, a sustainable agriculture.


For 50 real life examples of the new farmer, see The New American Farmer - Profiles in Agricultural Innovation, the SARE Program, USDA, Washington, DC. $10 US - call: 802-656-0484 or e-mail:, also available free on line at

A complete listing of Dr. Ikerd's papers is available at:

For more information about Washington Tilth Producers, who invited Dr. Ikerd to speak, see:

Thankfully, a new breed of American farmer has emerged to develop this new and better paradigm for farming. They have emerged in response to growing concerns about the negative ecological and social impacts of the corporate, industrial model of agriculture. These new farmers are concerned about the ecological, social, and economic sustainability of agriculture. However, the success of this new type of farming also has important implications for food safety, food quality, food security, and for the future of family farms.

While there are no "blueprints" for the New American Farm, some basic characteristics are emerging. First, these farmers see themselves as stewards of the earth. They are committed to caring for the land and protecting the natural environment. They have a deep sense of respect and commitment to caring for the land. They work with nature rather than try to control or conquer nature. They fit the farm to their land and climate rather than try to bend nature to fit the way they might prefer to farm. Their farming operations tend to be more diversified than are conventional farms--because nature is diverse. Diversity may mean a variety of crop and animal enterprises, crop rotations and cover crops, or managed livestock grazing systems, depending on the type of farm. By managing diversity, these new farmers are able to reduce their dependence on pesticides, fertilizers, and other commercial inputs that squeeze farm profits and threaten the environment. Their farms are more economically viable, as well as more ecologically sound, because they farm in harmony with nature.

Second, these new farmers build relationships. They tend to have more direct contact with their customers than do conventional farmers. Most either market their products direct to customers or market through agents who represent them with their customers. They realize that as consumers each of us value things differently because we have different needs and different tastes and preferences. They produce the things that their customers value most. They have a strong sense of respect for people and appreciation for the value of human relationships. They are not trying to take advantage of their customers to make quick profits; they are trying to create long-term relationships. They market to people who care where their food comes from and how it is produced--locally grown, organic, natural, humanely raised, hormone and antibiotic free, etc--and, they receive premium prices by producing foods their customers value. Their farms are more profitable as well as more ecologically sound and socially responsible.

These new farmers challenge the stereotype of the farmer as a fiercely independent competitor. They freely share information and encouragement. They form partnerships and cooperatives to buy equipment, to process and market their products, to do together the things that they can't do as well alone. They are not trying to drive each other out of business; they are trying to help each other succeed. They refuse to exploit each other for short run gain; they are trying to build long-term relationships. They buy locally and market locally. They bring people together in positive, productive relationships that contribute to their economic, ecological, and social well-being. They value people, for personal as well as economic reasons, and want to build and maintain good human relationships.

Finally, to these new farmers, farming is as much a way of life as a way to make a living. They are "quality of life" farmers. To them, the farm is a good place to live--a healthy environment, a good place to raise a family, and a good way to become a part of a caring community. Many of these farms create economic benefits worth tens of thousands of dollars, in addition to any reported net farm income. Their "quality of life" objectives are at least as important as the economic objectives in carrying out their farming operations. Their farming operations reflect the things they like to do, the things they believe in, and the things they have a passion for, as much as the things that might yield profits. They are connected spiritually through a sense of purpose and meaning for their lives. However, for many, their products are better and their costs are less because by following their passion they end up doing what they do best. Most new farmers are able to earn a decent income, but more important, they have a higher quality of life because they are living a life that they love.

The true family farm: updated and redefined

Those who operate the new American farms may or may not fit the stereotypical image of the "farm family" of a husband, wife, and children--most probably do, but many obviously do not. However, in most important aspects, the new American farms are truly "family farms." On a true family farm, the farm and the family are inseparable--they are parts of the same whole. On the new sustainable farms, the "family" may be an individual or two or more related or unrelated individuals, rather than the traditional family, but in any case, the "family" is inseparable from the land. To farm sustainably, the farmer must have a personal, caring relationship with the land--the farm and farmer must be connected.

"The new sustainable American farmers are 'family farmers' in the truest sense.They are stewards of the land, they value relationships, and they are pursuing a more desirable quality of life--economically, socially, and spiritually. The new American farm is 'the family farm on the cutting edge'."

On a true "family farm," the farm organization--production activities, marketing methods, farm enterprises, etc--must be consistent with the abilities and aspirations of the "family." As the abilities and aspirations of the family change, the farming system changes accordingly. The farm is a reflection of the family. On a true "family farm," the family makes all of the important decisions and those decisions must be consistent with the ethical and social values of the family. The relationship of the farm with the community must be consistent with the relationship of the family to the community. The ethical principles by which the farm is operated must be consistent with the ethical principles of the family. The farm is a reflection of the family. A farm business that simply makes money for a family to spend is not a true family farm. On a true "family farm," family, neighborliness, community, stewardship, and citizenship all matter. A true family farm is much more than just a business; it truly is a way of life.

The new sustainable American farmers are "family farmers," in the truest sense. They are stewards of the land, they value relationships, and they are pursuing a more desirable quality of life--economically, socially, and spiritually. The new American farm is "the family farm on the cutting edge."

There are literally thousands of these new family farmers. They are on the cutting edge of agriculture and society, creating new and better ways to farm and to live. They may label themselves organic, biodynamic, ecological, natural, holistic, practical, innovative, or nothing at all; but they are all pursuing the same basic purpose. They are on the frontier of a new and different kind of agriculture, an agriculture capable of meeting the needs of the present while leaving equal or better opportunities for those of the future--a sustainable agriculture. These new family farmers face struggles and hardships and there are failures along the way. Life is rarely easy on any new frontier. But, a growing number are finding ways to succeed.

Sustainable family farming is thinking farming. It requires an ability to translate observation into information, information into knowledge, knowledge into understanding, and understanding into wisdom. Agriculture has been characterized as the first step beyond hunting and gathering. But historically, farming was still considered a low-skill minimum-thinking occupation that almost anyone could do. Industrialization then was said to be the next step beyond agrarianism--beyond agriculture. Higher skilled factory work was considered a step up from farming. Sustainable farming, however, is not the "first step beyond hunting and gathering." Sustainable farming is a step beyond high-skilled factory work--it is "mind work." Certainly, these new sustainable farming systems involve some hard work, but their success depends far more on thinking than on working.

family farming is thinking farming.
It requires an ability to translate observation into information, information into knowledge, knowledge into understanding, and understanding into wisdom."

Sustainable agriculture is very much in harmony with a post-industrial paradigm of economic and human development. Sustainable agriculture even goes beyond "knowledge-based" development in that it requires understanding and wisdom. Sustainable farmers provide valuable personal services and societal benefits, which require a sense of ethics and social responsibility as well as intellect. The new family farmers are "thinking workers" --or "working thinkers"--as well as thoughtful, caring people. They combine the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of productivity. Some economists have suggested that America must logically abandon agriculture as it moves beyond industrialization. However, America simply needs to embrace this new kind of agriculture that brings with it a new vision for the future.

The sustainable agriculture paradigm of the new family farmers is completely consistent with the visions of Toffler, Drucker, Reich and others of a post-industrial era of human progress. It is holistic and integrative--not specialized or segmented. It is diverse, dynamic, and site specific--not standardized and routine. It is management intensive and interdependent--not management extensive and centralized in control. The sustainable model of farming is clearly biological rather than mechanical in nature--where size must conform to function. Targeted niche markets, less reliance on land and capital, knowledge-intensive management, hands-on management, size scaled to function, smaller is better--these visions of the future are all consistent with visions of a sustainable agriculture.

A new look at food security: sustainable farmers are key

The survival and success of these new family farmers will depend on the farmers, not on the government or industry. Family farmers cannot preserve their independence by becoming increasingly dependent upon the government. Farmers cannot preserve a farm way of life by becoming "hired hands" for agribusiness corporations. A farm is secure only when the farmer's economic and social relationships are relationships of choice, not relationships of necessity. Once the survival of a farm becomes dependent on a contractor, a banker, a lawyer, or the government, there is no farm security. A nation is secure only when it is able to feed itself in a time of crises. Once the nation becomes dependent on multinational corporations for its food, there is no national security.

In fact, the long run food security of the nation rests in the hands of these new family farmers who have broken away from the global industrial food system. During some future global crisis, we may well be forced to rely on local farmers for our very survival. If so, we will need even more farmers on the land who know how to work with nature to produce more without relying on costly commercial inputs. If so, we will need even more farmers who have developed direct relationships with their neighbors and their customers--who have created value, as well as reduced costs, by marketing more directly to local customers. We will even need more farmers who care about the land, care about people, and care about their country.

Can America depend on these new farmers? We can if we make it possible for them to remain true family farmers, sustainable farmers, instead of forcing them to exploit the land, their customers, and each other in vain attempts of economic survival. These new farmers are real people. Unlike multinational corporations, they have hearts, they have souls, and they have families, communities, and citizenship. They are not going to quit farming and move away from their family and friends, just because they could make more money elsewhere. They are rooted in the place where they grew up, where they have family, and would like their children to "take root" in those places as well. They are Americans. They love this country. They are not going to renounce their citizenship and leave this country just because they could make more profit farming in some other country.

What can the rest of us do to help? We can buy more of our food at our local farmers' markets. We can join a Community Supported Agriculture group. We can seek out and encourage local farmers who are willing to sell direct to customers. We can encourage local grocers and restaurateurs to buy from local farmers at every possible opportunity and patronize those who do so. And, we can encourage our friends, neighbors, and professional associates to buy local as well. We can become involved in local and national political issues that affect local farmers' access to land, markets, capital, and appropriate technology. But equally important, we can do everything in our power to support the new American farmers. Ultimately, our food is no more secure than are our relationships with each other and our relationships with the land. And for most of us, our relationship with land is through the new family farmers-farmers on the cutting edge.