The dramatic expansion of industrial agriculture or factory farming has made it increasingly difficult for small family farmers in the U.S to stay in business. Instead, the food industry has become dominated by a handful of giant corporations which benefit from government policy that favor large-scale production.
Family farmers are being forced out of business at an alarming rate. According to Farm Aid, every week 330 farmers leave their land.i As a result, there are now nearly five million fewer farms in the U.S. than there were in the 1930’s.ii Of the two million remaining farms, only 565,000 are family operations.iii As established family farms are shut down, they are not being replaced by new farms and young farmers. Very few young people become farmers today, and half of all U.S. farmers are between the ages of 45 and 65, while only 6% of all farmers are under the age of 35.
Some people ask whether these sorts of changes are inevitable; they wonder if family farming is simply out-of-date in today’s global economy. Or they may think: if industrial agriculture can supply more food at a lower cost, doesn’t that benefit consumers?
If food were like car parts or other consumer products, it might. But because our health, our enviroment, and our communitys are so greatly affected by food production, the way food is produced and shipped matters just as much as what’s in the food. For many people, the connection between farm and fridge is vague at best. In an age where a handful of corporate food processors determine most of what we find in the supermarket, it is critical for consumers to learn about where their food comes from and make their own informed choices.
Why are family farms important?
In addition to producing fresh, nutritious, high-quality foods, small family farms provide a wealth of benefits for their local communities and regions.
Perhaps most importantly, family farmers serve as responsible stewards of the land. Unlike industrial agriculture operations, which pollute communities with chemical pesticides, noxious fumes and excess manure, small family farmers live on or near their farms and strive to preserve the surrounding environment for future generations. Since these farmers have a vested interest in their communities, they are more likely to use sustainable farming techniques to protect natural resources and human health.
The existence of family farms also guarantees the preservation of green space within the community. Unfortunately, once a family farm is forced out of business, the farmland is often sold for development, and the quality land and soil for farming are lost.
Independent family farms also play a vital role in rural economies. In addition to providing jobs to local people, family farmers also help support small businesses by purchasing goods and services within their communities. Meanwhile, industrial operations employ as few workers as possible and typically purchase supplies, equipment, and building materials from outside the local community. Rural areas are then left with high rates of unemployment and very little opportunity for economic growth.
Finally, family farmers benefit society by boosting democratic values in their communities through active civic participation,v and by helping to preserve an essential connection between consumers, their food, and the land upon which this food is produced.
The loss of small family farms has dramatically reduced our supply of safe, fresh, sustainably-grown foods; it has contributed to the economic and social disintegration of rural communities; and it is eliminating an important aspect of our national heritage. If we lose our family farmers, we’ll lose the diversity in our food supply, and what we eat will be dictated to us by a few large corporations. Clearly, family farms are a valuable resource worth preserving. Now, more than ever, it’s important to realize that family farms are a valuable resource worth preserving.