Five Benefits of Small-Scale Farming

IMG_8562_compressed.jpgOddly enough, the efficiency and resilience of a system depends on redundancy. A system needs to be able to run well even if one part of it fails or goes missing.

For the American food system, this would mean not having all of our proverbial eggs in one breadbasket… as we are threatening to do. The EPA reports that U.S. agricultural production is becoming more concentrated, with less than one percent (187,816/2.2 million) of farms producing 63% of the agricultural product sales in 2007.

Rural System is not alone in finding that the best answer to this growing problem is a shift to regional, mid-size or small farm agriculture. Here’s why Rural System supports small or mid-sized farms:

1. Small-scale farming promotes communities.
Small farms renew a link between the food people eat and the land they live on. If your food comes from a farm down the road, you can see the plants as they sprout and look forward to the food of a season. It is also a reminder that human hearts and hands work to make the food you eat, not just a corporate label.

The Localism Index created by Stacy Mitchell informs us that 63% of customers in a farmer’s market actually stop and talk to other customers, as compared to 9% in the conventional supermarket. Though the direct causes for this difference are ambiguous, it is worth considering.

Small farms can also work together to become more competitive in the current agricultural market. Such cooperation creates communities amongst farmers and between farming families, hearkening back to a picture of America before the industrial revolution. This is already happening, as we found in The Beauty of the Farm Community.

2. Small farms create jobs.
According to the USDA, one million dollars in sales in local food markets supports thirteen jobs, as opposed to only three jobs in markets without a local or regional food focus. Even better, a market report generated by Union of Concerned Scientists informs us that even, “modest public support for up to 500 farmers markets each year could create as many as 13,500 jobs over a five year period.” The full report provides a handful of case study examples of how farmers markets provided jobs. Here you can read the executive summary of the market report.

3. Small farms improve the health of the land.
Smaller farms in the U.S. tend to grow a wider variety of plants, rather than monocultures of corn or soy. Natural systems are typically stronger when they have a greater diversity of species (redundancy!). If a disaster strikes the farm system, there is a greater chance that there will be crop species that can survive the disaster and so there is less economic risk to the farmer. Diversity of crops also improves the quality of the soil, as different plants use and replace different soil nutrients. Smart planting thus reduces the amount of fertilizer needed. Crop diversity also reduces the threat of pests and so also the amount of pesticide used. These are just a few key ways small farming can improve land health.

4. Small farms improve the health of people.
Local and regional farms provide people with seasonal, unprocessed fruits and vegetables. The availability of fresh, healthy food could serve as an alternative to the average unhealthy American diet, which currently consists mostly of corn and wheat in different forms.

5. Small-scale farming provides a foundation for a more resilient American food system.
Numerous small and mid-sized farms across America would provide a multitude of food-sources, creating important redundancy in the American food system. If any one farm has a poor season, Americans could still obtain fresh food from other local or regional farms in the area. In this way, economic risk is spread and we all can experience greater food security.

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We are only too aware of the difficulties that face the smaller-scale farm in modern America. Small farms have trouble obtaining credit in the present economy, and everyone is facing higher estate taxes. The traditional family farm has had to expand in size and grow one or more of the four great American cash crops: corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton in order to compete.

Government subsidies stack the deck in favor of large, monoculture farms. The federal government subsidizes crop insurance, and most of the funding goes to the cash crops: 80% of the subsidies of the past 15 years went to these four crops alone, which comprise only half of U.S. cropland. Thanks to this government aid, larger farms ($250,000+/yr) are doing quite well and have found a large niche in marketing to multinational food corporations.

Mid-sized farms ($50,000-$249,000/yr) are struggling, however, as they are unable to market to these larger corporations and are yet too large to sell their goods in farmer’s markets. A third of U.S. farms fall into the mid-sized category, but 10% disappear every 5 years. A mid-sized farm with an income between $100,000 and $249,000 has a profit margin of only around -1.8%.

Yet, if these farms did have a market, they would be able to supply food more locally than any large-scale, mono-cultured farm, and would also be able to feed more people more affordably than very small farms. A combination of small local farms and mid-sized regional farms could potentially meet the food needs of Americans.

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About Laurel Sindewald

Laurel is an alumna of Warren Wilson College with a BS in Conservation Biology and a BA in Philosophy. She is a writer for Rural System, Inc.

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