By Susan A. Schneider, Director of LL.M. Program in Agricultural & Food Law at Arkansas School of law and contributor to the Agricultural Law blog.
Throughout much of our history, the government has said that U.S. farm policy was driven by support for the family farm system of agriculture. Indeed, a federal statute, 7 U.S.C. § 2266, states that “Congress reaffirms the historical policy of the United States to foster and encourage the family farm system of agriculture in this country.” This statute goes on to state that “Congress believes that the maintenance of the family farm system of agriculture is essential to the social well being of the Nation and the competitive production of adequate supplies of food and fiber.” There is disagreement, however, about what is meant by the “family farm system of agriculture.”
Congress seems to say that the most important aspect is the ownership of the assets. The statute provides that “any significant expansion of nonfamily owned large-scale corporate farming enterprises will be detrimental to the national welfare.” While this statement may well be true, it expands the concept of family farming to include all large-scale corporate farming enterprises so long as they are owned primarily by a family.
While these large enterprises may be family-owned farms, and I respect their financial success, they do not represent my definition of the “family farm system of agriculture” as I see it. I define this system as being more complex than just who owns the farm. I see this system as based upon the agrarian tradition.
I like Wendell Berry’s description of “true agrarianism.” He has written that “[a]grarian farmers see, accept, and live within their limits. They understand and agree to the proposition that there is ‘this much and no more.’ Everything that happens on an agrarian farm is determined or conditioned by the understanding that there is only so much land, so much water in the cistern, so much hay in the barn, so much corn in the crib, so much firewood in the barn, so much food in the cellar or freezer, so much strength in the back and arms—and no more.”
While I would hasten to add that we can increase production through improved methods and a better understanding of the natural processes involved in growing our food, this definition recognizes that natural resources are limited and those limits must be respected.
This ties into a family farm model, because the farm, i.e., the land upon which the farm is built, provides the food and the financial livelihood for the family that lives on the farm. In my family farm system the financial livelihood of the current generation must not diminish the livelihood of the next generation. In order to pass the land onto the next generation of farmers, respect for the land is essential. The use of the land must be sustainable.
We must not “use up” the soil by depleting its nutrients and biological richness. We must not use up or contaminate the water. We must not farm in a way that creates a new generation of super weeds, virulent pathogens, or antibiotic resistant bacteria. All of these would diminish the farm for the family of the future.
Unfortunately, that has not been not the system of agriculture that U.S. policy has supported. Our policy has often encouraged farmers to farm in a way that is not sustainable, that puts the current generation at odds with future generations, that puts many family farms in a terrible predicament. Do they focus on maximum short term production, as encouraged by our farm programs, or do they focus on being good stewards of the land? Our farm policy should not force farmers to make this choice. If we are going to provide support to agriculture, and I argue that we should, that support should be tied to encouraging family farmers toward sustainable practices and a true agrarian family farm system of agriculture.
Professor Susan A. Schneider teaches agricultural and food law courses at the University of Arkansas School of Law and serves as the Director of the unique advanced legal degree program, the LL.M. Program in Agricultural & Food Law. Schneider was raised on a family farm in Minnesota and has devoted her legal career to work in agricultural and food law. Her private practice experience includes agricultural law work with firms in Arkansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Washington, D.C. as well as service as a staff attorney at Farmer's Legal Action Group Inc. (FLAG). She now serves on the FLAG Board of Directors. She is a past president of the American Agricultural Law Association (AALA) and was the recipient of the 2011 AALA Distinguished Service award. She is a frequent speaker at agricultural and food law conferences. Professor Schneider is a significant contributor to the Agricultural Law blog. Her twitter account @aglawllm is followed by many interested in agricultural and food law issues.