Small Family Farms: The Heart of the Midwest

Small family farms and ranches need our support so that family operations of rural America are a part of our future.

Small Family Farms

Small family farms are not just the livelihood of generations of families; they are the social capital of rural America.

Kleiner Junge am Strohballen/Fotolia

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When you hear the term “Traditional Family Farm” what comes to mind? Perhaps, a giant red barn, fields of healthy crops promising an abundant harvest, small herds of livestock happily eating upon the rolling, green pastures. Land holding sweat, blood, tears, dreams, and a means of survival for generations of the same family name.

However, there is still more than what meets the eye. Let me fill in the rest of the story … a family that shops at the local grocery store, a family that buys gas at the local station, a farmer who purchases machinery, fertilizer, and feed from their community, where their children attend school. In other words, a business unit that supports the economy, natural resources, and the social capital of rural America. You see, for rural America to have empowered and thriving communities, which is a very positive asset for our nation, the traditional American farmer must excel.

In recent years, the large expansion of industrial agriculture has made it increasingly difficult for the small family farms and ranches of America to stay in business. At an alarming rate, every week, 330 farmers leave their land. This leaves two million remaining farms and of these only 565,000 are family operations. The statistics continue to be negative. Between 2005 and 2006, the United States lost 8,900 farms and to break that number down, that would be a little more than one farm per hour. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 3,000 acres of productive farmland in America is lost due to development everyday. Between 1974 and 2002, the number of corporate-owned American farms increased by more than 46 percent. So what is the problem and why is this a concern?

Well, to me these aren’t just numbers on paper, rather a reality. I am the fifth generation of my family that has been directly involved in agriculture. I live on a small family farm just north of Beresford, a rural community. My family raises sheep, hogs, cattle, corn, soybeans, and alfalfa. Yet, agricultural isn’t just something that surrounds me daily, it’s a part of me and it’s very near to my heart. I am who I am today because of the effect it has had on my life. I love everything that it is and stands for. I love 4-H, FFA, riding my horse, and the smell of tasseled corn. But it’s not only the fun, enjoyable things, because I know first-hand the hardships and difficulties there are in agriculture. At any moment, in just a blink of an eye, everything you have worked for can be destroyed. Mother nature or disease can take their strike. It’s days where you get up before the sun to fence and when you’re out way past dusk to finish throwing bales onto the flat-bed before the summer storm moves in. Still, it’s the feeling of overcoming the trials and stepping back after a honest hard days work, to see your accomplishments and God’s blessings. There’s no place better to see God’s creation and His hand in our lives. And the days when you have come to the end of the rope, just to make ends meet, and all that’s left is faith. Through it all I’ve learned responsibility, strength, a hard-work ethic, honesty, dedication, and a foundation of morals and values. I’ve learned to be a leader, to be efficient, organized, respectful, humble, patient, financially aware, and most important, that happiness is wealth.

So, I’ve told you why agriculture is important to me, but why does it affect others and our nation? Our agriculture system is becoming more industrialized and moving away from small family farming. As a result, large corporations play a huge role in our environment and in the food the consumer uses. Although the corporations contribute to the low cost of food, it comes with some faults. I agree that expansion typically creates more profit and I also agree the change can be good, but at the expense of social capitalism, change and profit lose their positive qualities. Social Capital first appeared in discussions of rural school community centers. The term describes those tangible substances that count for “most” in the daily lives of people, meaning the cultivation of good will, fellowship, sympathy, and work ethic among those that “make up a social unit.” In other words, in my life living in rural South Dakota, I increase the social capital of my community by attending 4-H meetings, being part of FFA, singing in my choir, and playing on the basketball team. My parents increase it by serving on local boards, voting in elections, subscribing to the local paper, and attending community meetings. Now – I am going to ask you to connect the dots – if it takes people engaging in their rural communities to create social capital, then what happens when these people are forced to leave, disengage, or never have the opportunity to engage in the community? Are the dots connected? Rural America’s social capital decreases, thus decreasing rural America’s ability to thrive and be empowered. The small family farmer directly affects rural America’s social capitol.

Many studies have shown that corporate agriculture structure, when compared to family agriculture, reduces the quality of the life in the rural communities. Our rural communities, where there are 4th of July celebrations and Friday night football games, are reflecting this. One million jobs have been lost in these communities. Due to the fact that when family farms are shut down, they are not being replaced. There are very few young people who become farmers today. Only 6 percent of all farmers are under the age of 35. Without young, new families, the number of students in the local schools decrease and country churches are disappearing. If the traditional small farmer leaves, so does a large part of the population base, so less food and gas is being bought.          

By destroying the small family farms, we are destroying America’s foundation, our heritage, traditions and the heart of the Midwest. Agriculture opens so many doors and opportunities. Even though so many have a vague idea of how important it is to us, as consumers, but some are still aware that we need agriculture to survive. Eighty-two percent of Americans are somewhat or very concerned about the decrease of family farms and 85 percent of Americans trust smaller family farms to produce safe, nutritious food. Right now the United States Department of Agriculture, known as USDA, is educating the consumer through a new program called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” It is exciting to see the USDA supporting small family farms in this way.

Instead of looking at the negative aspects, let us instead look at the solution. Not to ban large operations, but to support small family farms. So we need to let people know what family farms mean to America. Recognize farming as an important, productive profession so that young people will be encouraged to become directly involved with agriculture. We need to help family farms stay competitive in this changing time. We need more young agricultural entrepreneurs that would be encouraged to continue the family farm through young farmer loan programs. We also need educational tools that would assist them in marketing and financial planning. Small family farms and ranches need our support so that we can help to ensure that there will be family operations in the future. So America’s future generations will have access not only to nutritious, safe, abundant food, but also to the heritage of our heartland.