Saving the Family Farm

Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Jay that “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.”[1] At America’s founding, we were a nation of farmers—over 90 percent of the country’s inhabitants lived directly on and from the farm. But today, that number has dwindled to barely two percent. From 2007 to 2012—just five years—the U.S. experienced a net loss of 90,000 farms.[2] In addition to the sheer number of farms being lost, we must note the sort of farms that have been dying out: namely, the small to midsize family farms. The average farmer is 58 years old. These aging farmers and ranchers are reaching retirement age, without any familial successor to take their place, thus resulting in the dismantling of multi-generation family ranches and farms. The American Farmland Trust estimates that an acre of U.S. farmland goes into development every two minutes.[3] Meanwhile, the corporate farms—those that grow commodity crops such as corn or soybeans—are doing quite well. Indeed, together, corn and soybeans make up almost half of U.S. crop revenues, with corn coming in at about $64 billion a year.[4] These monoculture crops increasingly dominate our agrarian landscape, and the farmers who run them procure the lion’s share of government subsidies and crop insurance.[5] It makes sense, then, that an increasing number of family farms are feeling pressure to corporatize. Though many of today’s farms are “family-run” in name, this definition includes fewer and fewer small-to-midscale generational farms, and more and more industrialized operations. Yet traditional family farms tend the land and community in ways that corporate enterprises cannot. The decline of family farming, then, would not just bode ill for agricultural enterprise: it would take a tremendous toll
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