by Vivek Nemane, India
This essay encapsulates the basic ideas of American family farming, subsequent development of industrial agriculture and the contradictions between industrialization of agriculture and family farming. Finally, taking into account Michal Demes’ practical experience of family farm management, the essay concludes that a strong balance among the vital components of cultivation is the effective way of farming.
American Family Farming
American family farming is an idea and tradition. This idea has its roots in the broader framework of freedom, patriotism and the way of life. Family farming is not only related to food and livelihood but it is considered as a nation’s pride; a concept which has national origins, association with history and culture, and a secular theological premise. One of the important features of family farms is the intimate connection between families and farms which creates vital links between a farm and the food being grown. The ideas and words associated with family farming also connote similar meanings of close connections. The word “farm” is derived from the Latin word ferma which means ‘the price of the lease was fixed or firm’. “Husbandry” means care of the land wherein ‘Hus’ means ‘House’ and ‘bonda’ means ‘living within or taking care of the premises’. “Husband” or Husbandsman means ‘a master of a household and its grounds who is responsible for its upkeep’.
During the 17th century, various attempts to create livelihood and survival started to shape the community ideal. It was a struggle to grow food with tragic and embarrassing beginnings. New immigrants and adventurous farmers around the world were attempting to grow different types of food crops in the new land. Two types of basic farms -- individual, small farms and widely scattered large farms -- were in existence. Later on, the 18th century farmers were successful in creating an intellectual framework for a social institution with an ‘owner- operated system of agriculture’. During this period, communities realized the importance of staying together to face adversities. Thus the process of effective land development started with the establishment of integrated community and townships. The land was thus assimilated into the lives of people and the goal was to achieve self-sufficiency and improvements over the struggles. The adjunct businesses like sheep farming, cow farming, manufacturing woolen products, milk, cheese, butter etc. created a shift from self-sufficiency to more commercial farming.
The family farming concept included the components of feeding families and at the same time affirming a system of values. The 19th century incorporated the idealization of American family farmers with virtues of thrift, self-sufficiency, authenticity, common sense, integrity, and the trinity of ‘justice-gratitude-industry’. The writings also focused on the contrast between rural and urban. Rurality is associated with health, loyal family surroundings, and simple virtues, which are held as a contrast to urban surroundings.
American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson employs a top-down approach in describing family farms. According to Emerson, nature sustains life and thus the family farm is important in restoring this sustainability. American author and poet Henry David Thoreau uses a ground-up approach in describing the same. He has occasionally hostile views of farming and in his negative comments talk about how farmers have to overwork, which leads to an unhealthy life. During the 1930’s and early 1950’s, massive changes occurred in the American rural economy, especially due to the great depression and World War II.
Traditional American farming is diversified, animal- and hand- powered, extremely labor-intensive, and self sufficient. This farm civilization was a step towards the business model of farming. But family farms are an effective, coherent system of many components (i.e. community, farm, ecosystem, crops, woodlot, animals, family, gardens) along with the relation of this surrounding with work, neighbors, worship and leisure. Thus it connotes an intangible harmony of diverse elements. The business model is based on industrial agriculture, which is extensively specialized with the support of, and dependence on, complex technologies, always on a greater scale with vertical integrations and corporate consolidations.
Leaders like Jefferson and Roosevelt espoused the concept of family farming. The 19th century, with its industrial revolution, disfigured the premise of family farming, but in the 20th century, voices were raised to restore the rural nation concept with an emphasis on family farming as the historical, social, moral and economic basis of all national institutions.
One of the allied concepts prominently discussed in connection with family farming is the concept of agrarianism. Land is considered as the most important tool of true agrarians. Here, land is given the broadest meaning encompassing not just soil but air, water, landscapes, farmscapes, place and home, habitat and ecological communities with special attachment to agricultural values.
American writer Wendell Berry conceives of the concept of agrarianism on the basis of spiritual and moral standards. He calls it as a system of values having deep spiritual kinship with the earth and ecological communities. Thus, natural surroundings automatically lead to a spiritual component; the presence of which is strongly felt in the family farm.
The author of ‘American Dreams- Rural Realities’ Peggy Barlett offers theories on the agrarian definition of personal success wherein it is less based on consumption levels than it is determined by the dimensions of satisfaction and the sense of responsibility in farming as a way of life.
In the industrial agricultural era, with urbanized localities, the daily interaction with agriculture and land is lacking. The most important component of the family farm -- i.e. self sufficiency -- is being lost. Now, ethics of production dominate farming. According to criticisms, narrow ideas of productive efficiency are a measure of success. Today’s farming and food industry is based on sophisticated economic processes with specialization, consolidation, contracting and integration as its basic premise. This process is considered essential to fulfill the demands of a globalized world. But this rapid process is resulting in fewer farms with large sizes.
Family farming is at the heart of policy debates around the world. Debates ranging from whether we should resort to industrial agriculture to whether we should grow and eat organic foods are the primary issues being discussed in American agricultural policy formulation. Marty Strange* analyzes family farming as a powerful cultural institution and discusses the transformation in American agriculture from small scale, broad-based farming to large scale industrial farming with the major trends of concentration, specialization and separation of people from the land.
After the farm crisis of the 1980’s, there was a dramatic transformation in the institutional character of agriculture. Marty Strange explains the significant characteristics of family farming as:
1. Owner operated and family centred;
3. Dispersed and diversified;
4. At equal advantage in open markets;
5. Effectively carries production processes in harmony with nature,
6. Concentrates on resource conservation and as an overall way of life.
Industrial agribusiness, to the contrary, is industrially organized and financed for growth. Industrial farms are operated on the large scale with specialized practices. They are capital-intensive and standardized in the production processes with a strong business component.
Soil conservation and the management of water resources is a major component of farm policy. Various enactments regulate the use of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. Family farms play an important role in supporting the development efforts through agricultural laws related to soil conservation, water conservation and overall natural resources management.
The family farm is an integral part of the American society as originated in the Homestead Act. The ‘Right to farm’ approach gives protection to farmers from potential legal liability in relation to fertilizer or pesticide application. Agricultural law plays an important role in the preservation of the family farm and in effectively addressing the concerns of family farms regarding legal incentives and restrictions in the policy debate.
Mostly, family farms are operated as a partnership or corporation. One of the structural problems in operating family farms is the dissention among farm owners due to divergent goals. There is a need to recognize a duty of stewardship with due consideration for the role of environmental law, the regulation of soil erosion, and good husbandry in farm tenancies.
I would like to cite the example of a family farm in Slovakia which attempts to converge all of the ideas expressed in this essay**. The Masek Mill Family Farm is unique, as it integrates modern technological elements with traditional agriculture. The family farm is owned and operated by Michal Demes and his family. It has a GIS system for environmental impact assessment as well as natural resource management. Many varieties of plants and fruit trees are being cultivated in an ecological way. Animals ranging from deer, horses and donkeys are present on the farm. Moreover a successful honey bee project is run by the owner and the naturally-produced honey can be purchased by visitors. Mr. Demes’ philosophical orientation is similar to the concept put forth by Wendell Berry with its emphasis on spiritual kinship with the earth. To propagate the practical example of modern family farming and also to experience its serene and calm environment, various thinkers and artists from Europe and United States regularly visit the family farm to spend their quality time. Moreover, school children and kids visit the farm for leisure as well as educational purposes. New projects related to alternative energy production are being implemented on the farm. According to Mr. Demes, the balanced use of modern technology (like GPS), integration of various sustainable cultivation practices and spiritual kinship with the earth is the model of modern family farming.
* Marty Strange is an author of the book ‘Family Farming, A New Economic Vision’
** The information is incorporated from the conversations with Michal Demes during a visit to Masek Mill Family Farm in Slovakia (www.ffmm.sk)
Barlett Peggy, ‘American Dreams, Rural Realities: Family Farm in Crisis
Bahls Steven, Judicial Approaches to Resolving Dissention among Owners of the Family Farm, Nebraska Law Review, USA (1994)
Marty Strange, Family Farming A New Economic Vision, The Institute for Food and Development Policy, USA (1988)
Neil D. Hamilton, The Role of the Law in Shaping the Future of American Agriculture
Neil D. Hamilton, Feeding Our Future: Six Philosophical Issues Shaping Agricultural Law, Nebraska Law Review (1993)
Ronald Jager, The Fate of Family Farming’ Variations on an American Idea (2004)