Thursday, Oct. 16, is World Food Day and the theme this year is “Family Farming: Feeding the World, Caring for the Earth.” This is fitting because 500 million of the world’s 570 million farms, or 88 percent, are family owned, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Family farms, the FAO points out, are clearly the best places to look for solutions to hunger, sustainability and biodiversity. And that is exactly what the FAO and other international development organizations are doing: concentrating on helping small-scale farmers most of which farm on less than 5 acres especially in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Texans and other Americans face a set of different challenges.
Americans are not so much hungry as “food insecure,” meaning they’re malnourished because of imbalanced diets, insufficient vitamins or minerals, and the over-consumption of unhealthy foods. Neither are American family farms small and unproductive.
About 96 percent of American farms are family owned and operated, and family farms account for nearly 85 percent of U.S. agricultural production, with “large” and “very large” family farms providing nearly two-thirds of this production. American farms also get a great deal of support from Congress and the USDA.
Still, the FAO is correct: small and midsize farms in the United States receive far less support than larger farms, with more than half of commodity payments going to the 11 percent of farms earning more than $500,000 a year.
They are also far less profitable than the larger farms, with almost all of the small and very small, or “hobby” farms, relying on nonfarm income and midsize farms vanishing, with well more than 100,000 gone over past decade.
Many family farms in the western states are also unsustainable as they drain rivers, dry up reservoirs and pump out ground water at nonreplenishable rates.
Moreover the midsized farms provide more biodiversity, since larger farms are typified by monoculture, with large plantations of single-variety species of corn, soy, cotton and other commodities, whereas smaller farms tend to plant different kinds of crops and raise different kinds of animals.
Yet it’s the midsize family farms that are especially getting squeezed. They don’t have the scale economies that the larger farms do whether in buying from corporate suppliers, selling power to food companies, and receiving price supports and other subsidies.
And it’s the midsize farms that constitute the mainstay of rural America. Whereas the larger farms are much more likely to have absentee owners and send their profits out of state, midsize family farms buy and spend locally, with resultant multiplier effects of jobs and income then going to local buyers, local hardware and grocery stories, and others.
So the question then becomes, what kind of rural America do we want?
Agricultural studies from several Midwestern states show that consumers in Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan spend of billions on food annually, but nearly all this money and all of the states’ farm production leave their respective states.
An Illinois state task force found that just a 20 percent increase in local food production, processing, and purchasing would spark $20 billion to $30 billion in new economic activity around the state and create thousands of jobs in Illinois.
To promote the diverse kinds of agriculture that would allow a more diverse and interconnected farm system to develop, policymakers in Illinois, Texas, California and other states need to reconsider what kinds of a rural America they want. Americans pride themselves on having a food system run by family farmers, but the truth is that the midsize farm, the backbone of American farming and country living, is less and less of a reality, and that trend will continue.
If Americans seek productive rural areas where midsize farms thrive and where young families can afford to become full-time farmers, state and national leaders both in and out of government must think creatively about how large, interconnected, and more self-sufficient state and regional markets could be developed.
Bartholomew Sparrow is a professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin who studies the history of U.S. foreign relations and teaches classes on the politics of food in America.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) October 16, 2014