A “Family-scale” Farm

What name can I give to the vision I have of a farm enterprise that is ecologically resilient and economically viable? I’ve been using a string of adjectives to describe the farm(s) I’d like to finance: small-scale, sustainable, diversified, etc. Perhaps I’m overly romantic, but the notion of “family farm” nearly hits the mark – but not quite. This is partly because of land consolidation into industrial farms which may be owned by a ‘farmer’ who tends the enterprise from a computer screen with a keen eye on crop insurance and federal subsidies and where the cash flows are well beyond kitchen table accounting.

On the other side of the coin are the vast majority (numerically, though not in acreage) of farms for many of which the farm income must be supplemented by one or more off-farm jobs. According the the USDA’s Economic Research Service, though 88% of US farms (by number) are considered small (sales of $250,000 per year or less), the remaining 12% of farms produce 84% of agricultural output. They conclude that, “For the most part, large-scale farms are more viable businesses than small family farms” (emphasis in original. Note that the significance of government price supports, crop insurance and the like which disproportionately benefit large farms are not mentioned).

Farming today, at least as reported by the USDA, is concentrated at two ends of a spectrum and what is sometimes called “Agriculture of the Middle” is today relatively rare. Still, I’d like to support efforts towards the idealized “Sweet Spot” I wrote about a while back: farms that can support a family, steward the land and provide safe, healthy food – without relying on off-farm work for income (or health-insurance coverage). Is a family scale farm even possible today? I know there is tremendous creative energy from the National Young Farmers Coalition, the Greenhorns and others. I think they’re going to figure this out.

And I’d like to help.

1 Comment

  1. Bob on July 17, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    Many of these same points are made in a report by the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund report “Understanding the Food Production Sector” which includes this paragraph on page 3:
    “While the future of increased agricultural activity through a network of localized farm ventures is of heightened importance and interest, the associated need for loan capital is not being met. Community and commercial banks are unlikely to enter a sector which requires specialized knowledge, has non-standard repayment terms, and does not have widespread credit supports to mitigate the risk. Nevertheless, the need for financing is clear, and it is alternative lenders such as CDFIs who can fill the gap and can potentially pave the way for conventional lenders to re-learn specialized industry knowledge and reestablish comfort with and confidence in this sector.’

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