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
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
1, November 27, 2002: The logical
consequences of industrial agriculture.
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org,
also available free on line at www.sare.org/newfarmer.
A complete listing of Dr. Ikerd's papers is available
For more information about Washington Tilth Producers,
who invited Dr. Ikerd to speak, see: www.tilthproducers.org
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.
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.
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
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'."
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.