Defining the family farm

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.

Lead photo of Bowling Family Farm members by U.S. Department of Agriculture.

3 Responses to “Defining the family farm”

  1. bud hoekstra

    I shook the dictionary and out fell two words that i don’t like: industrial farming and agarianism. I prefer to think of the difference as a difference of profession and business. In the old dictionaries on my father’s farm the meaning of profession was clear: professes – a profession is a group of people who embrace a code of conduct that’s environmentally, economically and socially responsible. Organic is a code of conduct enacted into law. A business is a profit-driven enterprise so that the difference between right and wrong is a dollar.
    UC-Davis SAREP defines sustainable agriculture as ecology, economy and equity. Equity gives me the most chagrin to understand. Old phrases like and eye for an eye, or all men are dreated equal, or love thy neighbor as thyself, or even “willing seller, willing buyer” which encapsulates our economic system are what equity is made of. Being equal is not always being equitable, as Martin Luther King Jr has implied: “The principle of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.”
    Perhaps the dictum of conservation is equitable: to use but not use up. The dictums of disturbance biology shape my vision of sustainability and conservation: how we manage a disturbance like a plow or a crop so that the overarching system of planetary life-support remains resilient, if not unaffected.
    Perhaps if we understood that the way we farm can poison the soil, water and air – yes, the food chain of generations that come after us! – we’d host more agrarianism on every farm.

  2. Dr. A.S. Panwar

    Im interested in receiving more information on concept, definition, scope and other issues of family faming

  3. Patricia Huber

    I find this to be very false. Our family works very hard to be true stewards of our land. We farm and manage our business to pass onto the next generation – our son and our daughter. I find it offensive that you must state we live in poverty. We only live within our means. We don’t have every gadget in our house, we don’t own a boat, camper, side by side, etc, etc, etc. We save for what we have and live off of that savings for the years that the crops are below average. Visit a family farm. Find out the real story.


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