Small Farms

October 10, 2010

Back during the 1980s farm crisis my friend Gary Comstock put together a volume entitled Is There a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm? The contributors to the book tended to avoid actually answering this question, but one could discern a general trend. Quite a few contributors suggested that the decline of relatively small farms was just the inevitable result of market forces. Small farmers can’t compete; they’re inefficient compared to larger ones. And what they didn’t actually say (but one suspects what they meant) was that this is really all there is to say about this. The market is always right. Whatever results from market forces has a moral logic behind it, and we should just suck it up and accept the result. Stepping in and trying to reverse this result would be unfair to the people who accepted the need to compete. I still hear this from relatively larger farmers in Michigan.

For me, the most decisive argument against this “fair competition” view is that the kind of farming we have today is hardly the result of market forces. The Federal government has put incredible subsidies into large scale farming, and I’m not talking about the subsidy programs that are paid out for corn, soybeans and other commodity crops every year. I’m talking about the way that the defense budget underwrote a massive expansion of the chemical industry’s ability to produce synthetic nitrogen and chemical pesticides. Much of the productive capacity to do this was built on the basis of defense contracts that guaranteed full cost recovery at zero risk. The country needed these technologies, first to fight two World Wars, and later to remain strong in military power. It was very easy for the chemical industry to “beat swords into plowshares” by converting this capacity to agricultural uses. And maybe it was appropriate for them to do so, but it sure as heck destroys the “fair competition” argument when your realize how unlikely it is that the capacity to deliver chemical farm inputs would have ever been built if the chemical industry had expected farmers to pay for it.

A few (and I’m talking about very few) defenders of industrial scale farming actually have given some thought to why this might be a good idea. They note that it is generally a good idea to make it possible for goods of any kind to be produced cheaply, because that allows consumers to spend their money on other things. They expand their basket of consumables, so to speak, and this is not only good for them as consumers, it also tends to spark economic growth in sectors other than agriculture. In philosophy, we call this a utilitarian argument. Efficiencies are good because they help promote “the greatest good for the greatest number.” If a few farmers go broke, the harm from that is offset by benefits to the majority. And there is an egalitarian kicker to this argument for farming, because the poor tend to spend more on food. So reducing the cost of food benefits the poor proportionally more than the rich (who might prefer a decline in the price of computers, air travel or diamonds).

These are important arguments that I take very seriously. I think that they successfully establish the reason why Comstock’s question is actually an important one. Here are some of the arguments he offers to support small farms.

  • Small family farms are an important part of our history. They have symbolic value.
  • Smaller family farmers may be better stewards of the land because they plan to hand their farms down to children. They may, in other words, be better for the environment.
  • Smaller farmers may be better contributors to community values.

This last argument gets a bit of support from a famous study by Walter Goldschmidt published under the title As You Sow. Goldschmidt (who died recently) studied two towns in California. One was surrounded by many smaller scale farms, the other by fewer larger farms. The small farm community had better social services, a healthier local business community, better schools and a generally better quality of life. It may just be because there was a critical mass of population, but Goldschmidt did note that the larger farmers would travel farther to get better deals on equipment and inputs. They did not support the local businesses the way that smaller farmers did.

I’m not at all sure that these arguments for small farms trump the argument from efficiency. But as I note above, I’m also not at all sure that the way efficiencies are measured in a market environment are all that accurate. Other studies by John Brewster repeatedly showed that small farms are as efficient in producing food as larger ones; but it may be easier for food companies to contract with a smaller number of large farmers. This suggests that maybe we should look for ways other than low market prices to help those on low incomes get better access to quality food.

But it’s a tough nut to crack!

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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