Ecology And Environment

What Happened to Family Farms



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Family farms have been a part of America since the first colonists came to this country 400 years ago. The tradition of raising one's own food was considered "normal" for Americans until after World War II. But now, there is a growing crisis, who will raise America's food in the coming generation and where will it be raised?

Our culture has changed from valuing hard work and responsibility, to valuing prosperity and delegation of work. Though farmers have long been viewed as subordinate, there was a recognition of the valuable service they offered in raising food for those who did not live "on the land." However, since the dawn of the "technology age," our society has come to value those who do little in the way of hard, physical labor, and look down upon those who choose to work with their hands. Until the age of television, this attitude was limited to a few "in town," who denegrated their farming neighbors. But now, television expands that attitude and farm children see it, and the alternatives. As a result, children of farmers are moving away from the farm, learning more technological and financially based skills, and stopping what has been a long tradition of inheriting the family farm.

One of the reasons for this, besides cultural pressure is the idea that in order to farm a person must own and maintain a large fleet of machinery. Young farmers are told repeatedly that in order to succeed as a farmer they must increase their crop yield, and grow their farm acreage. This financial toll wears on a young person. Though they value the life they have grown up with, they do not wish to continue their parent's load of debt, hard work and loss of respect in the eyes of the community. They are also told that they must align themselves, either as corporate subsidies, or as their own Limited Liability Corporation, with the idea of middlemen, monoculture and receiving less than adequate payments for the food they produce.

The government has been working since WWII to create a centralized food system, giving subsidies to those who create the most food, though they are far from sustainable, or family farms. The farmers who still practice family style farming are exempt from these subsidies, and therefore cannot compete with their corporate neighbors, and often just sell out.

Intensively managed farms, using agricultural chemicals and heavy machinery, takes a tremendous environmental and financial toll on the ecology and family on the farm. Using "accepted practices," for modern agriculture requires constant purchases of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, processing equipment and hours of labor, just to bring one crop to sale. It is nearly impossible to change a crop after the farm has been established, if it is growing plants, because the soil has often been rendered sterile. The only plants that grow there are the ones that the farmer has planted. But even those plants need minerals and nutrients that were taken by previous plantings, requiring that the farmer must rebuild with chemical fertilizers after every planting.

Farming takes time, at least to do it in a sustainable way. Because of the need to meet huge loan and mortgage payments, farmers cannot take the time that is needed to naturally rebuild the soil. Allowing land to lay fallow, or heal, with green manures and compost, is time that most industrial farmers cannot afford. They must push every acre to its limits in order to meet the corporate demand, even though it is losing venture every time they have to spend the proceeds to replant for the next season.

In addition, as communities expand, the consumer public does not want to see, hear or smell, the environmental cost of growing the food they consume. Ordinances are continually passing that make it illegal to keep a certain type of animal, a certain number of animals, or to practice a certain technique, because of "nuisance complaints" by the neighbors.

Why should young people choose to face these challenges? Because we need them, and their food. Luckily, the latest agricultural census is showing a net increase in small farms, which are usually family farms. It is still a tough "Row to hoe," to be a farmer, but new approaches, such as Community Supported Agriculture, Subscription farming, and the increased awareness of food quality issues, is making it worthwhile for many people to return to the farm life. Ironically, at least in the Northeast, the people returning to the family are those who were raised in other countries, or in American cities. We still need to find a way to turn the huge "mega farms," back into sustainable farms, run by the families that have operated them for generations. Hopefully, consumer trends and government regulations will start to make that more appealing.

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More about this author: Patricia Stewart

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