Family farms that once filled America’s countryside are both shrinking and disappearing. These were the stuff of a diverse, local and regional food system that once provided the security of knowing you could stock your pantry from what was grown just down the road. Space was plentiful for growing large market gardens. If you wanted to raise your own hog or grow out your own steer, you could buy that livestock from the farmer down the road, too.
The Duroc hogs that ran free in their grassy field pens were part of the homegrown farming picture when I was growing up. I showed the first hog from the family farm at the Ozark Empire Fair when I was just four years old. Mom and Dad ran a small dairy, then switched to beef cattle, all the while raising breeding stock swine that won national awards. We had enough acreage, just a few hundred acres, for the hogs to root around, for the cattle to graze on grass, and for a few crops to be grown from time to time. My brothers were in Future Farmers of America and hauled hay into the barns every summer.
The Economic Research Service with the United States Department of Agriculture has reported that mid-sized family farms like ours are especially rare these days. With one-third of farmland now considered to be inside a metropolitan area and thousands of acres each day being converted into development, farmland is getting scarcer. American Farmland Trust works to preserve land because of this.
While the USDA reports a growth in small farms under 10 acres, the other extreme is now the largest farms taking over the highest percentage of farmland, mostly for production of a limited group of crops like corn and soybeans. A USDA report reads:
“Large farms now dominate crop production in the United States. Although most cropland was operated by farms with less than 600 crop acres in the early 1980s, today most cropland is on farms with at least 1,100 acres, and many farms are 5 and 10 times that size.”
Most true family farms seem to not be making ends meet without significant off-farm income. And statistics showing some 2 million family farms define the term so broadly that you wouldn’t find a modest family like my folks living there in a farmhouse.
Several watchdog groups like the Center for Food Safety, Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth have been warning that intense, large-scale, factory farming is not only producing more risks to our food systems, but threatening the environment. Examining the agricultural-environmental connection globally, Friends of the Earth reports that Brazil has a larger population of beef cattle than people, and they’re grazing on what used to be a large swath of the biologically diverse Amazon rainforest. CFS has been mapping Confined Animal Feeding Operations to point out how this sort of farming is changing America’s landscape. From genetically engineered crops to pesticide use to soil fertility and water quality, the trend toward larger scale, often confinement farming is raising concerns. From the standpoint of diversity alone, some say America’s agricultural system is in trouble, with too few species of livestock and crops now that they’re mostly concentrated into the hands of a few large producers.
How can you support a more vibrant farm economy that looks more like the diversity of a few decades ago? Here are some suggestions:
- Eat less meat, choosing meat from local family farms if possible.
- At the grocery store, shop for the USDA Organic label or a non-GMO verified seal.
- Try growing your own garden and shopping at the local farmers’ market for produce.
- Sign up for a Community Supported Agriculture program that pays your local farm ahead of time for producing your share of food.
- Support a diverse agricultural system is with nonprofit Heifer International which connects real food systems with people in poverty, even here in the United States.
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