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Preserving the Family Farm and Sustaining Rural Communities

John Ikerd

Historically, family farms have been the mainstay of American agriculture and of American rural communities. When people thought of farming, they thought of a husband, wife, and their children, living and working full-time on a farm that they owned and managed. When they thought of rural America, they thought of communities supporting and supported by farm families. However, the full-time family farm has not been the norm for some time, as more and more families have had to supplement farm income by seeking employment off the farm. Many farming operations now owned and managed by families look more like animal factories or mono-crop plantations than family farms of the past. Today, many people in the agricultural establishment - including commodity organizations, government agencies, agricultural universities, and agribusiness corporations - are suggesting that family farms are outdated and that rural communities will simply have to find a new economic foundation upon which to build their future. Many seem to question whether family farms are even worth preserving or whether rural communities can even be sustained in the future.

Are family farms worth preserving? If not, then agriculture quite likely is not sustainable, and neither are rural communities, nor is human life on earth. If agriculture is not sustainable, then there will be no reason for people to live or work in most rural communities, and more important, there will be not be enough food to support more than a small fraction of today's human population. I am not suggesting that it is impossible to sustain agriculture without family farms, but I am suggesting that no one to date has suggested a logical means by which that might be done. Quite clearly, the industrial agricultural operations that are now displacing family farms in America are not sustainable. It makes little sense to allow family farms to disappear when they are our only realistic hope for building a sustainable agriculture or sustainable rural communities, and thus, for sustaining civilized society.

First, I need to define what I mean by family farms because different people define family farms differently. A common definition of a family farm is a farm owned by a family, where the family makes the important management decisions, and the family provides most of the labor. While these may be characteristics of most family farms, to me, a true family farm is defined by the fact that the farm and the family are inseparable. To me, family farms can be full-time or part-time, they can be family owned, leased, or rented, and non-family members can do much of the work on the farm, as long as the farm workers become a part of the "farm's family."

On a true family farm, the family would be vitally different if they did not live and work on their specific farm and the farm would vitally different without the specific family that now farms it. The family and farm are essential parts of the same inseparable whole. On a true family farm, the farming operation changes as the family changes, with each family member taking on different roles as they mature. A family farming operation evolves to accommodate each new generation of farmers. The family considers the needs of the land, the animals, the farm, as well as the needs of the family, in making all decisions. The farm is a reflection of the family and the family is a reflection of the farm in the local community and in society as a whole. A farm that simply makes money for family members to spend is not a family farm.

Contrary to popular belief, there are still a lot of family farmers in America. Many of the true family farmers today are identified with labels such as organic, biodynamic, natural, ecological, practical, innovative, or holistic. The "families" may or may not be married couples with children but the people who farm together are committed to each other. They typically market their livestock and crops into specialized niche markets or market fresh or value-added food products directly to their customers. They market through farmers markets, roadside markets, community supported agriculture organizations (CSA), or by mail order using the internet. Increasingly, these new family farmers collaborate with like-minded independent food retailers - supermarkets, restaurants, public institutions - to gain access to larger numbers of like-minded customers. But these new family farms are defined by the same characteristics as traditional family farms; the farms and the families are inseparable.

Many people also question whether these new family farms are sustainable. I have to admit that most probably are not truly sustainable, in the sense of being able to maintain their productivity and value to society indefinitely, at least not under existing conditions using existing know how. Economic viability remains the most elusive of the ecological/social/economic trilogy of sustainable farming. Access to higher-volume markets shows promise of being the missing economic link for which these ecologically sound and socially responsible farmers have been searching. Also the economic efficiency of these new approaches to farming will undoubtedly improve over time, as our understanding of sustainable systems evolve and new supporting technologies are developed. Regardless, these new family farms clearly are our best hope for sustaining American agriculture in the future.

Regardless of what they may think of the sustainability of family farms, Americans need to move into the future with a clear understanding that industrial farming systems quite clearly are not sustainable. We simply cannot sustain the current trend toward the industrialization of agriculture. Industrial agriculture's lack of sustainability is not a matter of personal opinion, it is a logical conclusion based on some of the most fundamental laws of science, the laws of thermodynamics. We might be able to sustain industrial agriculture for another couple of decades, or perhaps another fifty years, but ultimately, it is certain to lose its productivity. In meeting our needs today, it is degrading and depleting the natural and human resources of the earth, leaving nothing with which to meet the needs of future generations.

Sustainability ultimately depends upon our use of energy because anything that is useful in sustaining life on earth ultimately relies on energy. All material things that are of any use to us - our food, clothes, houses, automobiles, - require energy to make and energy to use. All human activities that are of any use to us - working, managing, thinking, teaching, - require human energy. This human energy comes from the things people use. Physical scientists lump all such useful activities together and call them "work." All work requires energy.

In performing work, energy is always changed in form, specifically, from more-concentrated to less-concentrated forms of energy. Material things, such as food, gasoline, wood, plastic, and steel actually are concentrated forms of energy. Materials or matter can be changed into energy, as when we eat food or burn gasoline. Energy also can be changed into different forms, as when we use heat to generate electricity. However, the total energy embodied in matter and energy always remains the same, unchanged. This is the law of energy conservation, as in Einstein's famous E=MC2. At first, it might seem that we could simply go on recycling and reusing energy forever. If so, sustainability would be inevitable.

However, anytime we use energy to perform work, some of the usefulness of energy is lost. Once energy is used to perform work, before it can be used again, it must be reconcentrated, reorganized, and restored, and it takes energy to reconcentrate, reorganize, and restore energy. The energy used to reconcentrate, reorganize, and restore energy, is simply no longer available to do anything else. It has lost its usefulness. This is the law of entropy; the tendency of all closed systems to tend toward the ultimate degradation of matter and energy; a state of inert uniformity of component elements; an absence of structure, pattern, organization, or differentiation. The barren surfaces of the Moon or Mars are scenes about as close to entropy as any of us have seen.

Since this loss of useful energy is inevitable, it might seem that sustainability is impossible. No matter how efficiently we conserve, reuse, or recycle the usefulness of all energy eventually is lost. And in fact, life on earth would not be sustainable without the daily inflow of solar energy, which could be used to offset the usefulness of energy lost to entropy.

Industrial systems are very efficient in using and reusing both natural resources and human energy, but they do nothing to offset the inevitable loss of usefulness of energy due to entropy. That's why they are so efficient; they don't "waste" energy doing things for future generations. All forms of industrial development, including industrial farming, inevitably deplete the natural resources upon which they depend. Thus, industrial agriculture, by the logic and reason of the most basic laws of science, quite simply is not sustainable. Industrial farms, like other industries, are essentially resource-using systems; they use land, fertilizer, fuel, machinery, and they use people, but they do nothing to replace the energy that is inevitably lost to entropy.

Industrial farmers don't use the solar energy from the sun to restore the productive capacities of their farms; instead, they transform solar energy into crops and livestock that are sold off the farm to be used up elsewhere. In fact, our industrial food systems use about ten calories of fossil energy, in addition to solar energy, for each calorie of food energy produced, using about 17% of the total fossil energy used in the U.S. An industrial agriculture invests in buildings, machinery, equipment, access to land, and other means of resource extraction and exploitation; but it invests nothing in regeneration or renewal of resources to support future generations. It's simply not economically efficient to do so.

In addition, industrialization not only uses up the natural resources required for sustainability, it also uses up the human resources. The law of entropy applies to social as well as physical energy. All human resources - labor, management, innovation, creativity - are products of social relationships. No person can be born, reach maturity, and become productive without the help of other people who care about them personally, including their families, friends, neighbors, and communities. All organizations, including farms and businesses, also depend on the ability of people to work together toward a common purpose, which depends upon the civility of the society in which they were raised.

Industrialization inevitably dissipates, disperses, and disorganizes social energy because it weakens personal relationships. Economic efficiency requires that people relate to each other impartially, which means, impersonally. People must compete rather than cooperate if free markets are to work efficiently. When family members work away from home, they have less time and energy to spend together, and personal relationships are threatened. When people shop in another town rather than buying locally, personal relationships among community members suffer from neglect. Industrial economic development inevitably devalues personal relationships and disconnects people, and thus dissipates social energy. There are no economic incentives for industries to invest in renewing or restoring personal relationships within families, communities, or society. Economic benefits must accrue during the lifetime of the investor. Thus, industrialization inevitably tends toward social entropy.

The consequences of an industrial agriculture are readily apparent in rural America today, where consolidation of farmland into larger and fewer farms, has resulted in fewer farm families. It takes people, not just production, to support rural communities - to buy feed, fuel, clothes, and haircuts on Main Street, to support local schools, churches, and other public services. Some farming communities become so desperate for economic development they grasp at any opportunity for survival, including prisons, urban landfills, toxic waste incinerators, or giant contract confinement animal feeding operations. Such enterprises create economic benefits for a few but at the expense of the many - especially those who live downstream or downwind - inevitably leading to conflicts among neighbors. The industrialization of agriculture is destroying the social fabric of rural America and accelerating the process of social entropy - it is not sustainable.

Economies are simply the means by which we deal with relationships among people and between people and the natural environment in complex societies. Economies actually produce nothing; they simply transform physical energy and social energy into forms that can be traded or exchanged in impersonal marketplaces. An industrial agriculture extracts its economic capital from the land and from society; it uses up the fertility of farmland and the productivity of people. And when all of the physical and social energy have been extracted and exploited, an industrial agriculture will have nothing left to support it economically. Industrial farming inevitably accelerates the process of economic entropy - it is not economically sustainable.

We simply cannot continue doing what we have been doing to rural areas. The industrial approach to farming and rural economic development quite simply is not sustainable. Its productivity relies on extraction and exploitation; it does nothing to renew or regenerate either the natural or human resources that must sustain the future of humanity. The industrialization of rural America inevitably accelerates the tendency toward entropy.

The sustainability of agriculture, of rural communities, and of human society will all require a fundamentally different model or paradigm of economic development. Thankfully, we already have a basic understanding of this new paradigm, because it is based on the principles of living systems. Living organisms, including soil microorganisms, plants, animals, and people, have the natural capacity and proclivity to be productive while devoting a significant portion of their life's energy to renewal and regeneration. Living plants have the unique capacity to capture, organize, and store solar energy that can be used by not only to support other living things but also to offset the energy that is inevitably lost to entropy.


We humans are also living organisms. We willingly devote a significant portion of our life's energy to nurturing our children, our future generations, with very little economic incentive to do so. We have the capacity for sustainability. Obviously, an individual life is not sustainable because every living thing eventually dies. But, communities of living individuals clearly have the capacity to be productive, and at the same time, to conceive, reproduce, and nurture new generations, thus sustaining the life of the community. The new family farms respect these basic principles of living systems and thus are our best hope for agricultural sustainability.

Those who question whether family farms are worth saving tend to focus only on short run productivity rather than long run sustainability, which requires both productivity and permanence. Obviously, industrial farms can be more productive in the short run, because they invest nothing in either the natural resources or social resources needed to sustain future productivity. Any investment made by an industrial organization, must promise a positive expected return for current investors and anything invested on an industrial farm must promise a positive return during the lifetime of the current farm owner or decision maker. Industrial farm management is about managing for the economic bottom line, and it makes no economic sense to invest in anything from which someone else is expected to realize the return.

Family farms, on the other hand, make investments that make sense in terms of the overall well-being of the family, which is inseparable from the well-being of the farm, and is directly related to the well-being of society. Family farms seek balance and harmony between productivity and permanence, between economic efficiency and ecological, social, and economic sustainability. Family farms are managed for the well-being of people, not just for profits or wealth. People are multidimensional beings with social and spiritual needs as well as individual material needs. People need relationships with other people; we are social beings, by nature. People need to have a sense of purpose and meaning in life; we are spiritual beings, by nature.

A true family farm reflects the humanness of the family in their relationships with their farm, their community, and with society. They are good neighbors and good citizens because caring for others adds happiness and joy to their lives. They take care of the land and care for the other things of nature, because stewardship gives purpose and meaning to their lives. Family farming is a way of life, as well as a way to make a living. But it is not just about the quality of family life, it is also about sustaining a desirable quality of life for society as a whole. If we value the future of human society, family farms certainly are worth saving.

A difficult time of transition lies ahead as the economy moves from industrial development to sustainability development. If family farmers are to survive this transition, they must manage for sustainability and permanence rather than productivity and profitability. There is no blueprint, recipe, or checklist that will ensure success. A sustainable farm is a living organism; it must continue to renew itself and evolve to accommodate its ever-changing natural and social environment. However, several general strategies flow quite naturally from an understanding of where we are today and where we need to go in the transition from industrialization to sustainability.

First, new family farmers must focus on food that has quality, nutrition, and safety. The growing popularity of organic foods reflects a rapidly growing environmentally conscious food market. The current explosion in popularity of local foods reflects a related growth in a socially conscious food market. The people in this new food culture clearly give a high priority to ecological and social integrity. They may be less concerned about cosmetic appearance than are typical food consumers but the new consumers are not willing to compromise on the basic quality, nutrition, and safety of their food, and in fact they may demand more.

Second, new family farmers must focus on ecological and social integrity. The new food culture is not just concerned about pesticides, growth hormones, and GMOs. They are concerned about the impacts of their food decisions on the natural environment, on the treatment of farmers and food industry workers. They care about who benefits from the process of food production and who pays the costs. Obviously, they do not ignore food prices, but they willingly pay premium prices for their food with ecological and social integrity.

Third, the new family farmers must focus on their uniqueness. Each family farm is unique, in terms of its natural resources, its location, or the personal abilities and aspirations of the family members. Other farmers may be able to produce high quality, safe, and nutritious foods that have ecological, social, and economic integrity. Thus, profits from market niche market based on these factors alone will not be sustainable, as other farmers may decide to produce the same products for the same customers. The economic sustainability of a particular family farm depends on its uniqueness, on providing things that other farmers cannot replicate.

Fourth, new family farmers must focus on finding like-minded customers. Ecologically conscious people can be found just about anywhere in America. Various studies and surveys indicate that they make up between a quarter and a third of adult Americans. Many farmers make the initial connections with such customers at farmers markets. At farmers markets, farmers can try out a wide variety of products and meet a variety of customers, and thus, have an opportunity to find people who value the things they can produce well and want to produce. Many farmers now moving into higher-volume retail food markets understand the opportunities and challenges, because they have had direct contact with specific members of the sustainable/local food culture through direct marketing activities.

Fifth, new family farmers must focus on developing personal relationships with their customers. Finding customers that value what they do and how they do it isn't enough; their customers must also value who they are - personally. Even if their products, processes, or locations cannot be duplicated, they can still be approximated, which limits their advantage in the marketplace. Farmers and their customers are unique individuals with unique relationships. Perhaps even more important, positive personal relationships have not only economic value but also intrinsic value - they contribute to the overall quality of life. As sustainability moves into higher-volume markets, ways must be found to maintain some sense of personal connectedness among consumers, retailers, farmers, and through farmers, with the land.

Sixth, and finally, new family farmers must focus on being happy rather than just making money. Personal income or wealth alone cannot make a normal person happy. Positive relationships with other people - trusting, caring relationships - are essential to happiness. People are social beings. Farmers that seek rightness in their relationships with their neighbors and customers are more likely to find happiness than those who are preoccupied with production and profits. And as farmers extend this sense of rightness to their relationships with the earth, they are building the foundation for sustainable communities and a sustainable society. Most family farmers who have gone broke in the past did so while focusing on the economic bottom line. Many new farmers have actually started making more money when they broaden their focus to include stewardship and overall quality of life. Regardless, happy people always seem to have enough money.

The strategies for sustaining rural communities are based on the same fundamental principles of living systems as those for preserving family farms. Sustainable rural communities must be built upon a foundation of ecological, social, and economic integrity. Sustainable communities must function as self-renewing, regenerative living systems, maintaining their productivity while devoting a significant portion of their time, money, and energy to conceiving and nurturing future generations. Sustainable communities must be driven by the purpose of permanence, which includes both productivity and regeneration.

First, sustainable rural community development must be linked to local resources. There must be a purpose for people to live and work in a particular place. Land, minerals, landscapes, and climates must be utilized, at least initially, in the geographic locations where they exist, and thus, provide potential sources of sustainable development. Sustainable family farms will also play a critical role in sustaining most rural communities because of the ecological ties of farms to the land and the social ties of farm families to their communities. Contrary to what some development "experts" suggest, rural communities need not abandon agriculture; they simply need to embrace this new kind of agriculture as a sustainable foundation for rural community development.

Second, sustainable communities must invest in people. People are the basic source of productivity in the post-industrial, knowledge-based era of economic development. The virtuous cycle of education, increased innovation, increased investment, increased value, and higher wages offers an alternative to the vicious cycle of industrial recruitment, low wages, declining value of education, and fewer employment opportunities, which is turning rural areas into the dumping grounds for society. Sustainable farming is knowledge-intensive. It requires a high level of understanding and intensive, hands-on management. Sustainable farmers are thinking workers or working thinkers, as well as thoughtful, caring people. The common practice of preparing the best and the brightest to leave rural areas will have to be reversed to meet both cultural and economic needs of rural communities. Quality life-long education will be equally critical to prepare people to succeed in the new, dynamic sustainable rural community.

Third, sustainable rural communities must invest in infrastructure. Good roads and access to airports may continue to be important, however, modern telecommunications systems will be the key element in making rural areas competitive with urban and suburban areas in the information-driven, knowledge-based economy of the future. Anything that can be outsourced to another country could be outsourced to rural America instead; accounting, customer service, catalog sales, and public relations appear to be logical candidates for future rural development. Rural Americans could have a distinct advantage over distance workers in other countries, in their native ability to understand and communicate with other Americans and in their understanding and respect for American culture. But rural people must be encouraged, educated, trained, organized, and otherwise empowered to perform the necessary functions effectively and efficiently.

Fourth, rural communities must invest in quality of life. Rural communities need to make the most of their natural advantages in local climates, landscapes, and recreational opportunities. Land use planning and zoning can make and protect quality spaces in rural communities, thus providing highly desirable places for people to live. Sustainable family farms are such quality spaces, being not only good places to live on, but also good places to live around. Rural health care also will be important quality of life investments for rural communities. But sustainable communities must be regenerative, and thus, must have maternity wards and pediatricians not just cardiac units and nursing homes. Personal security and safety also will be top priorities in maintaining and enhancing the perception and reality of rural communities as quality places to work and to live.

Fifth, rural renewal and regeneration will require a commitment of understanding, accepting, and valuing diversity. Quality of life depends upon positive relationships among different people. Thinking, learning, behaving and working alike were necessary for success in the industrial era of development. Thinking, learning, behaving, and working differently, but in harmony, will be the key to success in the knowledge-based era of development. Sustainable rural communities must welcome new people, and be willing to embrace their new and different ideas, while helping the new people to understand the importance of maintaining those aspects of rural culture that make rural communities good places to live and grow.

Sixth and possibly most important, people within sustainable communities must develop a shared vision for their common future. In many respects, the vision of each person, new or old to the community, will be different from the vision of others. However, the people of a community must search for and find some common elements among their different visions to provide the nucleus for a shared vision of hope for the future. Otherwise, the group is not really a community but rather a collection of people who happen to live in the same general geographic area. A community that has found a shared vision of hope for the future has made its first critical step toward self-revitalization and sustainability. To paraphrase Jesse Jackson, if they can conceive it and believe it, they quite likely can achieve it. The sustainability of rural communities is most certainly a possibility, but the people of rural communities must find the courage to claim it.

The preservation of family farms and sustainability of rural communities both will be achieved by people who are willing to seek a common future through shared values. While people, rural and urban, hold many different values, we all hold a set of core values in common. For example, the Institute for Global Ethics has conducted surveys, interviews, and focus groups with people around the world, asking people, "What do you think are the core moral and ethical values held in the highest regard in your community?" Answers obviously varied widely, but five values consistently ranked high in virtually every inquiry. They were honesty, fairness, responsibility, compassion, and respect. People may disagree about many things, but we all agree that if we are to maintain positive relationships within our families and communities we must treat people with honesty, fairness, responsibility, respect, and compassion. These are values we all share in common. Upon these values, we can build sustainable farms and communities.

To preserve family farms, to sustain our rural and urban communities, and to sustain humanity, we must all find the courage to pursue a more enlightened concept of self-interest, realizing that our own economic success can be sustained only by helping others to succeed and leaving opportunities for those of the future to succeed as well. We must come to realize that our own happiness and well-being is linked with the well-being of the people around us and with those of the past and future - that we owe a debt to the past that we can only repay to the future. The new family farmers must manage for the triple bottom line, giving equal priority to ecological, social, and economic performance in their business endeavors. The people of the new sustainable rural communities must invest their time, energy, and money locally, at home, in ways that maintain the social, ecological, and economic capital of their communities. And the rest of use must support them, because we realize it is in our enlightened self-interest to do so.

Is the family farm worth preserving? Yes, and we must work to preserve, if we value the future of humanity. Can we save it? Yes, if we support it rather than allow it to be destroyed by continued industrialization. Can rural communities be sustained? Yes, if we are willing to do our part to protect and renew them rather than allow their resources to be extracted and exploited by industrial development. The new sustainable family farmers blazing a new trail that also leads to sustainable communities and a sustainable human society - to a fundamentally new and better world. The future of humanity may well rest upon our finding the wisdom to follow.

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