Securing Agriculture for Family Farms[1]

John Ikerd[2]

The theme of this conference is “Arming the Movement for Independent Family Agriculture.” A question that comes to mind might be, “Why do we need a movement for independent family farms and ranches?” According to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture, 96% of the farms and ranches in the U.S. are family owned.[3] Furthermore, independence is a source of great pride for America’s family farmers. They proudly proclaim, no one has a right to tell them how to use their land. Thomas Jefferson praised yeoman farmers,” who he thought exemplified the civic virtues and independence essential for democracy and believed government policies should support farmers. Even today, any presidential candidate who failed to express support for family farmers would be dismissed as politically uninformed or perhaps even un-American.

The need for an independent family agriculture?

Most people involved in agriculture have at least an intuitive understanding that traditional family farms and ranches have been under attack for at least 50 years, but most consumers and taxpayers simply don’t know what’s been happening in American agriculture. The so-called modern farming movement has been making it increasingly difficult for true family farms to survive, while skillfully disguising itself in the cloak of “family farming.” If the independent family agriculture movement is to succeed, the true nature of so-called modern farming must be revealed to the general public. This will not be an easy task. Most Americans don’t understand agriculture well enough to know the difference between corporate-controlled industrial agriculture and independent family agriculture. Meanwhile, the “agricultural establishment,”[4] vehemently denies that any real differences exist.

I understand the difference, perhaps better than most, because I lived and worked during the transition from an agriculture made up of independently owned and operated family farms and ranches to an agriculture dominated by corporately-controlled, industrial agricultural operations. I also understand why and how this transition took place and why it is imperative that farms of the future be grounded in the social and ethical values of traditional family farmers.

I grew up during the 1940s and 1950s on a traditional family farm in southwest Missouri. My brother is still on that farm and it remained a small-scale, traditional family farm. By the time I received my PhD in Agricultural Economics in 1970, farming in America was on the cusp of transformational change. Farm policies changed and farming followed. One of my professors at the University of Missouri, and later a mentor, was Harold Breimyer. Harold frequently reminded his students and others that “Americans can have any kind of agriculture we want.” He said we simply need to design and implement the right farm policies to get it. He was right.

The only politically defensible justification for government farm policies is to ensure domestic food security. Farm policies justified by economic priorities should logically be administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce rather than the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Domestic food security was the political justification for the U.S. farm policies of the 1930s. The nation was in an economic depression, farmers were going broke, and the nation’s food security was at risk. Depression era farm programs attempted to provide domestic food security by providing economic security for family farmers. Domestic food security was also the political rationale for the later shift in farm policies in the early 1970s to programs that prioritized industrial agriculture, abandoning family farming as a policy priority.

During the early 1970s, the Nixon/Butz administration convinced Congress of a need to change American agriculture by changing U.S. farm policy—and it worked. Hunger in America had become a major public concern during the 1960s, suggesting a lack of domestic food security. The political strategy was to provide food security by making American agriculture more economically efficient, rather than supporting family farms. Reducing farm-level costs of production would result in lower food prices and make more food readily available to more people. The means of achieving economic efficiency was to adapt the industrial business strategies, tactics, and technologies to agriculture. The industrialization of American agriculture was made possible by agrochemical and mechanical technologies initially developed to fight World War II. However, government farm and food policies incentivized, subsidized, facilitated, protected, and continue to sustain the ongoing industrialization, and impending corporate takeover, of American agriculture.

Inexpensive and effective chemical fertilizers and pesticides allowed farmers to abandon diversified farming operations and specialize in crops or livestock and then in specific crops or phases of livestock production. Specialized farming operations could be routinized, standardized and mechanized—simplifying management and making it possible for each farmer to manage more acres of cropland or more head of livestock or poultry. Larger and more sophisticated farm machinery and equipment allowed cropping operations to continue expanding. Livestock and poultry production was moved into large-scale confinement, factory-like operations—now called CAFOs. Specialization, standardization, mechanization, and then consolidation are the hallmarks of industrialization—the means of “achieving economies of scale” in American agriculture. Management was first consolidated into larger farms but now into multiple industrial operations controlled through comprehensive contracts with large, multinational, corporate agribusinesses.

However, this highly specialized and mechanized agriculture was revealed to be inherently risky. Farmers had to make large investments in land, buildings, and equipment in operations that were vulnerable to unpredictable weather that can devastate crops, diseases that can wipe out livestock and poultry operations, and markets characterized by periodic overproduction. So, American taxpayers were asked to share these risks through U.S. farm policies—including price supports, deficiency payments, subsidized crop insurance, disaster payments, subsidized interest rates, loan guarantees, and investment tax credits. Diversified family farmers didn’t “bet the farm” on a single crop or two-crop system or a single livestock species or system. Earl Butz knew farm policies that shifted the risks of industrial farming to taxpayers would industrialize American agriculture. Like Breimyer said, we can have any kind of agriculture we want. Butz convinced the U.S. Congress that America needed an industrial agriculture—and we got it.

As I mentioned in my presentation at this conference two years ago, during the first half of my 30-year academic career as an agricultural economist, I supported the transition from family farms to industrial agriculture. I believed a more efficient agriculture would provide new economic opportunities for progressive family farmers. I told farmers, farming as a way of life was of the past, not the future; that farms of the future would have to be operated as economic bottom-line businesses. I believed farming operations that became farm businesses would support prosperous rural communities. Farmers who didn’t choose to make the transition would find better employment elsewhere. But most importantly, I believed a more efficient agriculture would eliminate hunger in America. We were going to make good food affordable for everyone.

During the farm financial crisis of the 1980s, I began to awaken to the fact that the agriculture I had helped to create had done none of these things—and it wasn’t going to in the future. Many farmers who had followed the advice of us so-called experts to either “get big or get out” had “gotten big” by borrowing lots of money—at record high interest rates. They were now being forced to “get out” by an economic recession that resulted in a collapse in global markets for farm commodities. Many were being forced out by foreclosures on farm loans and farm bankruptcies. There were no better jobs for many of them in rural communities or elsewhere. Some committing suicide—as a way out.

As family farms failed, rural communities withered and died. It takes people, not just production, to support communities. People shop on Main Street for clothes, cars, and haircuts; people with kids to keep local schools open, people to fill church pews, and serve on school boards and town councils. I began to see also that farming “fence-row to fence-row” and tearing out fence rows was leading to rampant soil erosion. Agricultural chemical and biological wastes from industrial operations also were polluting the air and water and tainting food products. This kind of agriculture is not sustainable—ecologically, socially, or economically.

Only later would I realize that industrial agriculture had failed even in its most fundamental purpose: it failed to provide domestic food security. Today, an estimated 15% of the U.S. food supply is imported, including 60% of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80% of seafood.[5] More than 20% of U.S. agricultural production is exported.[6] A nation that depends on international trade for food security, has no real food security. In addition, more people in the U.S. are classified as “food insecure” than back in the 1960s.[7] In 2017, one-in-eight Americans were classified as food insecure and one-in-six American children lived in food-insecure homes.[8] The U.S. is also plagued with an epidemic of diet related illnesses, such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and a variety of cancers. We got the kind of agriculture Earl Butz and the U.S. Congress wanted, but it didn’t serve the public purpose they gave as its political justification.

During the 1980s, I realized I couldn’t continue supporting this kind of agriculture. I spent the rest of my professional career and have spent the years since trying to help replace the failed industrial system of agriculture with a sustainable agriculture: an agriculture that can meet the basic food needs of all in the present without diminishing opportunities for those of the future. Farms that fail to maintain the ecological health and fertility of the soil eventually will lose their ability to produce enough to provide food security. Farms that can’t meet the basic food needs of a society, all of society, will not and should not be sustained by that society. To be sustainable, agriculture must be ecologically sound and socially responsible as well as economically viable.

That being said, I have learned some hard lessons over the years. America will not have a sustainable agriculture until we have farm policies that incentivize and facilitate a transition from industrial agriculture to sustainable agriculture. I have learned that the only means of sustaining American agriculture is to return to the core values of traditional family farms. Traditionally, family farms were not simply a means of making a living, but they were also good places to live, raise families, and be responsible, respected members of caring communities. Traditionally, family farming was an honored profession; farmers were the caretakers of the land, the earth, and provisioners of food security. Similar claims for the so-called modern family-owned farms of today ring hollow. Today, many family-owned farms erode the soil and pollute air and water with agricultural chemical and biological wastes. They help turn once-viable rural communities into “rural ghettos” and rural communities into the new “inner cities.” [9] One-in-six of our children go hungry, while many of today’s family-owned farms produce fuel for our automobiles.

We cannot and need not go back to family farms of the past. Farmers simply need to reclaim the traditional values of family farming. The farm values are timeless that prioritize stewardship of nature, citizenship in community, and making a decent living over simply making more money. I believe most family farmers still hold these values, although they may suffer from decades of neglect. Perhaps these traditional values have been stifled by farm policies that essentially force farmers to keep getting bigger and give in to corporate control—just to survive. I’m even more confident that the many young people I meet at sustainable agriculture events around the country hold the same basic core values as traditional family farmers. Many existing family farmers and wannabe farm families simply need an opportunity to make a decent living as they live out the values of traditional family farmers. I’m convinced we can have an agriculture of independent family farms in America—if we design and implement the right farm kind of policies to get it.

Finding a Shared Voice for Fundamental Change in Farm Policies

Transformational changes in U.S. farm policies will not be easy. The agricultural establishment has a firm political grip on U.S. Congressional and state legislators who represent the nation’s major farming areas. This means defenders of the status quo currently control the agricultural committees and thus control both federal and state agricultural policies. The only means I can see of bringing about fundamental change in agricultural policies is through a consumer/taxpayer revolt. I’m convinced, if American consumers and taxpayers actually understand the agricultural and food policies their food and tax dollars are supporting, they would demand fundamental change. I have been skeptical of the likelihood of such a revolt, but I think odds for real and lasting change are better now than at any time in the past 50 years.

One reason for hope is an increasing public awareness that the challenges confronting independent family farmers and ranchers today are integrally connected with the challenges confronting American society as a whole.[10] For example, the loss of economically competitive agricultural markets, the focus of this organization, is a consequence of the abandonment of U.S. antitrust policies in general, not only in agriculture but across the whole economy. The industrial agri-food systems is one of the several major emitters of greenhouse gasses linked to global climate change. All have to be addressed. The corporate economic exploitation of farming communities shares the same root causes as the economic and social degradation of the old inner cities, mining towns, and “rust belt” communities. The political and social marginalization of rural people is but one dimension of discrimination against economically disadvantaged minorities in general. Economic inequity, poverty, and hunger, traditionally urban problems, now plague economically abandoned rural and urban communities alike.

An agriculture characterized by traditional family farm values would address all of these challenges, and far more. Sustainable family farms could mitigate the threat of global climate change by restoring carbon-rich organic soils, through holistic management of crop rotations, cover crops, and integrated livestock grazing systems. Farmers with traditional family farm values could help shirk the “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and elsewhere by reducing their reliance on commercial fertilizers and moving livestock and poultry out of large-scale confinement operations and back into diversified crop/livestock farming systems. Independent family farms could provide opportunities for marginalized immigrants and other disenfranchised minorities. Given opportunities, economically viable family farms would help solve the problems of rural poverty and rural economic exploitation. Given the authority to establish local food sovereignty, hunger could be eliminated in rural communities.

In summary, a transition to family farms can help restore the ecological, social, and economic integrity to agriculture and rural communities and help remove the root causes of the major problems confronting urban, suburban, and rural American society in the process. The independent family agriculture movement needs the political power that logically could be gained by joining with those who share common political causes and common adversaries. Together, advocates for ecological, social, and economic integrity could ignite the consumer/taxpayer revolt needed to “create the kind of agriculture, and nation, we want.”

Getting the right farm policies to get the agriculture we want

A realistic possibility for a revolution in farm and food policy exists. However, if family farmers refuse to recognize or admit that today’s corporately-controlled industrial agriculture is a contributor to a growing list of larger national and global problems, they will forgo the opportunity to benefit from collaborative solutions to those problems. Over the years, I have concluded that people don’t make big, transformational changes unless three conditions are met. First, they have to conclude that what they are doing isn’t working and isn’t going to work in the future. Second, they have to have some idea or vision of what they could do instead that would be significantly better. Third, they have to believe it would be possible for them to successfully make the transition. If any one of these three conditions is not met, most people will be unwilling to make big changes.

If this belief is true, the independent family agriculture movement must be willing to confront the defenders of the corporate economic status quo. For example, the agricultural establishment has mounted a nationwide public relations/propaganda campaign to defend so-called modern agriculture. One example is the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) which, according to their website, “consists of more than 100 farmer and rancher led organizations and agricultural partners representing virtually all aspects of agriculture. They are “committed to… supporting U.S. farmers & ranchers’ efforts to increase confidence and trust in today’s agriculture.[11] A 2015 Friends of the Earth study revealed that USFRA had spent nearly $30 million between 2009 and 2013. [12] The report identified more than a dozen similar “front groups” spending more than $25 million a year pushing “a coordinated message” in defense of industrial agriculture. This doesn’t include the millions of dollars spent directly each year by agribusiness corporations, commodity organizations, and the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Among the most prominently promoted myths that need to be exposed is that only a high-tech, bio-tech, industrial agriculture will be able to “feed the world.” This claim is riddled with fallacies. First, U.S. agricultural exports have not alleviated global hunger in the world’s poorest countries. Instead, most U.S. agricultural exports have gone to the so-called developing countries with growing affluent classes, such as China and India.[13] Furthermore, claims of commitments of feeding the world simply are not credible while the agricultural establishments fight to divert more U.S. farmland to biofuels rather than food. Contrary to popular belief, the food needs of 70% to 80% of the people of the world still are being met by small family farms, most of which we would call “subsistence farms”[14]—not industrial agriculture. In addition, the diet/health problems we have seen in the U.S. have emerged wherever else in the world the industrial model or agri-food production has been imposed on the people. Global research has shown that with minimal public policy assistance, not industrial strategies or technologies, the world’s small family farmers would be quite capable of doubling or tripling their production, without adopting industrial agriculture—not only feeding themselves but also “feeding the world.”[15]

A related myth is that industrial agriculture is necessary to keep U.S. food prices affordable. Admittedly, the percentage of U.S. consumers’ incomes spent on food declined during the early years of agricultural industrialization. However, over the past 20 years, years of growing corporate control of the food system, food prices in the U.S. have risen faster than the overall rate of inflation.[16] Industrial agriculture has succeeded in reducing farm-level production costs and increasing supplies of agricultural commodities. However, instead of allowing food prices to fall, food processors have used the cheap agricultural commodities as raw materials to manufacture convenience foods and “junk foods.” This has not only kept retail food prices higher than necessary but also has reduced the nutritional value of food, with the consequent rise in obesity and diet related illnesses.

In addition, farmers and ranchers receive less than 15 cents of each dollar spent by American consumers for food. Even if average production costs on sustainable family farms were 50% higher, retail food prices would only need to be 7.5% higher (50% of 15%) to cover the higher farm-level costs of production. Retail prices for alternatively grown foods, such as organic, GMO-free, free-range, grass-based, or hormone and antibiotic free are much higher today because they are considered market niches. Processors and retailers take significantly higher profit margins for “niche” products. In addition, government policies have virtually assured that processing and distribution systems are designed to accommodate mass-production, mass-distribution agri-food systems. A change in agri-food policies could dramatically reduce current economic advantages for industrially produced foods.

Highly credible studies and statistics supporting a transition from industrial agriculture to regenerative, sustainable alternatives are readily available on-line. For example, a 2016 study sponsored by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations cited more than 350 sources of scientific information. The International Panel of Experts in Sustainability (IPES) concluded: “What is required is a fundamentally different model of agriculture based on diversifying farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimizing biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods. Data shows that these systems can compete with industrial agriculture in terms of total outputs, performing particularly strong under environmental stress, and delivering production increases in the places where additional food is desperately needed. Diversified agroecological systems can also pave the way for diverse diets and improved health.”[17] These characteristics of farming systems are essential for global food security are those of traditional family farms.

The independent family agriculture movement need not develop new information to expose the myths of industrial agriculture or to prove that fundamentally better alternatives are available. The necessary information already exists. The viability of these agricultural alternatives is being proven successful by farmers across the U.S. and around the world. Organic, ecological, holistic, regenerative, innovative, practical, and natural are just a few of the names used by farmers who have rejected industrial agriculture. These farmers are guided by the same basic values as traditional family farms. The challenge is to break through the current fog of public complacency and distrust; to convince the American people that fundamental change in our agri-food system is essential; that the food security of the nation depends on a return to the traditional values of independent family farms and ranches. American consumers and taxpayers must be inspired to revolt; to demand U.S. farm and food policies that will transform today’s corporately industrial agriculture into an independent family agriculture.

I believe the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) could play an important role in meeting these challenges. The OCM initiative to “Messaging corporate power—to rural and urban audiences” seems ideally suited for a broader campaign to expose the myths of industrial agriculture and to share a vision for a new and better agriculture for the future. I think the ongoing presidential campaign gives OCM, and independent family farmers, a unique and timely opportunity to make their case for fundamental change in American agriculture. Several of the democratic candidates have proposed strong enforcement of antitrust policies. OCM is already working toward a “Moratorium on Food and Ag Mega-Mergers.”[18] This initiative could be aligned with political campaigns to educate the public about the American abandonment of capitalism for corporatism and the necessity of restoring “economically competitive markets.”

The presidential campaign also provides an opportunity to call for transformational change in U.S. farm policies. Current farm policies essentially lock conventional commodity producers into industrial farming systems. As an alternative, I have proposed a Family Farm Transition Tax Credit program that asks taxpayers to share farmers’ risks of transitioning from conventional commodity production to regenerative, sustainable family farms—as current farm programs share risks of industrial production.[19] This program would essentially guarantee incomes of farm families comparable to non-farm families during their transition from conventional commodity production to regenerative, sustainable farming systems. The program would be voluntary and available to new and wannabe farmers as well as current commodity producers.

The OCM “agricultural checkoff reform” initiative provides another opportunity to expand the messaging beyond the blatant unfairness of using farmers' checkoff dollars to support activities that are completely contrary to their best interests. The more fundamental message is that the agricultural establishment has captured and perverted well-meaning farm policies to serve the corporate agricultural agenda. This message would ring true with allies in organic farming, conservation and environmental protection, and a wide spectrum of the general public who feel abandoned by their government. Rather than simply abandoning checkoff programs entirely, a flexible program could be adopted that would allow farmers to direct their checkoff dollars to support a transition from industrial agriculture to independent family farms and ranches.

I am not trying to tell OCM how it should manage its programs. I am simply trying to promote the idea that U.S. farm programs should provide at least as much support and economic security for independent family farmers as we currently provide industrial commodity producers. Current farm programs were well-intended, but they failed to provide good food for all and have had unintended and unacceptable environmental and social consequences that threaten the future of humanity. We know there are better ways to farm that promise a better future for rural communities and for society and humanity in general. We already have a pretty good idea of the kind of agriculture we need and want. We just need to develop and implement the right farm and food policies to get it.

I am often labeled as naïve, nostalgic, and idealistic for my persistence in supporting traditional values of family farming. Many people believe “the family farm” is simply an idealistic agrarian myth that never actually existed in reality. Perhaps that is so, but if so, it is no more so than the ideals of our American Democracy. Even if neither has ever existed in reality, they are ideals worthy of our continuing aspirations and unrelenting dedication. They are ideals that can guide us to better ways to farm and better ways to live than we have yet achieved.

I understand that the task of transforming U.S. farm policy and farming seems daunting. The defenders of the corporate agri-food status quo are economically and politically powerful, and in comparison, we individually seem economically and politically impotent. But they are the few relative to our many. The one power that is greater that corporate power is the power of the people—specifically, people committed to a common cause.

Edward Hale, a Unitarian minister, wrote in a 1922 Address of the President…: I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.[20] Hale also wrote, “Together—is one of the most inspiring words in the English language. Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” Together we have any kind of agriculture we want, if we are willing to create the right farm policies to get it. Together we can make the ideal of an independent family agriculture a reality.

End Notes:

[1] Prepared for presentation at 21st Annual Food and Conference and Membership Meeting of The Organization for Competitive Markets, Kansas City, MO, August, 8-10, 2019.

[2] John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia MO, – USA. He is the author of six books, which are available on Books and Kindle E-books, and dozens of presentation papers, blog pieces, and other website posts at and Email: The professional opinions expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Missouri.

[3] U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2017 Census of Agriculture Data Now Available,

[4] The “agricultural establishment” refers to large agribusiness corporations, major commodity organizations, American Farm Bureau Federation, USDA, and the most agricultural colleges.

[5] Whitehouse Report, “Food Safety Modernization Act—Putting the Focus on Prevention, .

[6] USDA, Percent of U.S. Agricultural Products Exported.

[7] CBS documentary, “Hunger in America,” 1968,

[8] USDA, ERS, “Food Security in the U.S., Key Statistics,” Updated Tuesday, October 11, 2016, .

[9] Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg, RURAL AMERICA IS THE NEW ‘INNER CITY’, TheWall Street Journal, May 26, 2017, .

[10] The Green New Deal provides an excellent example of the congruence of farm and non-farm ecological, social, and economic challenges and potential public policy solutions.

[11] The Food Dialogues, ABOUT, US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, .

[12] Kari Hamerschlag and Anna Lappé, “Spinning Food,” Friends of the Earth, .

[13] Share World Resources, “Think U.S. Agriculture Will End World Hunger, Think Again?’,

[14] Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, State of Food and Agriculture, 2014, .

[15] IPES – Food, International Panel of Experts on Sustainability, From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, June 2016, p. 3, .

[16] Historic Price Inflation for Food, Finance Ref/Alioth LLC, 2017. .

[17] IPES – Food, International Panel of Experts on Sustainability, From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, June 2016,

[18] Organization of Competitive Markets, “Moratorium on Food and Ag Mega-Mergers,”

[19] John Ikerd, Farm Policies to Return Farming to Families, blog post, .

[20] Attributed to Edward Everett Hale in: United States. President (1922). Addresses of the President of the U.S. and the Director of the Bureau of the Budget. p. 80