Crisis and Opportunity in American Agriculture[1]

John Ikerd[2]

The Crisis in American Agriculture

Crisis is a chronic characteristic of American agriculture. The current crisis in agriculture is not a consequence of the weather, of world trade problems, or of unwise government policies. These things have only magnified the symptoms that arise from deeper causes. Crisis is a chronic symptom of the type of agriculture we have been promoting on this continent for the past fifty years – an industrial agriculture. Reoccurring financial crises are the consequence of our encouraging farmers to industrialize – to become more specialized, standardized and larger in scale so consumers can have more cheap food. We rationalize the displacement of family farmers in the process as “freeing people from the drudgery of farming” so they can find better jobs in town.

Chronic crisis in American agriculture has meant chronic crisis in America’s rural communities. As farms have become more specialized, they have grown larger and fewer. The fundamental purpose of most rural communities was to support those engaged in agriculture or some other natural resource-based enterprise, such as mining, timber, or fisheries in the surrounding area. But it takes people, not just production, to support a community. The larger farms tend to bypass rural communities in buying the production inputs and marketing their products. In addition, a rural community is far more than a rural economy. It takes people to fill the church pews and school desks, to serve on town councils, to justify investments in health care and other social services, to do the things that make a community. As farms have grown larger and fewer, many rural communities have withered and died.

The promise of profits is the bait that keeps farmers on the technology treadmill. Farmers adopt new cost cutting and production enhancing technologies to increase profits, but the resulting increases in production cause prices to fall, eliminating profits of the early adopters and driving the laggards out of business. This technology treadmill has been driving farmers off the land for decades. Those remaining on the treadmill after each crisis must run faster and faster just to survive. Soon, they don’t have time for their families, let alone their communities. They can afford to care too much about their neighbor, for they know soon that to survive, they will have to have their neighbor’s land. Inefficiency and reluctance to change are not the causes of failures among American farmers. Farm failure is an inherent part of the system. Some must fail in order for others to succeed, and with each crisis, there is room for fewer and fewer survivors.

But the current crisis is different in that it signals the final stage of industrialization – corporate control. The giant multinational corporations are now seizing control of American agriculture, moving beyond specialization and standardization, beyond consolidation into larger farms, to consolidation of decision making into corporate boardrooms. This final stage of industrialization also is turning once peaceful farms into odious factories, with all of the noxious odors, environmental degradation, and inhuman working conditions that characterized heavy industry of earlier times. This final stage of industrialization could well spell the end of the American farm, and with it, the American rural community.

Industrial agriculture in the US came first to the poultry industry. A handful of larger corporations control poultry production from genetics to the supermarket, and there are virtually no independent producers left. Hog production is rapidly following in the footsteps of poultry, with corporate ownership and contract production becoming the norm rather than the exception. Dairy will likely be the next agricultural sector to industrialize, as the current trend toward large-scale production will quite likely be followed by corporate control. It’s not just a matter of economies of scale, but far more a matter of market control. Biotechnology will bring corporate control of grain production, as producers will have to grow crops with approved genetics in order to have a market, and biotech corporations will hold the genetic patents. A grain farmer who doesn’t sign a corporate contract simply won’t have a market.

It's all a matter of profits. Poultry producers have proven that if a few corporations can gain control of a sufficiently large share of an industry, they can stabilize supplies on the backs of their contract producers, and can maintain corporate profits indefinitely. Corporate producers are not concerned about profits during the consolidation period. The faster that low prices force independents out of production, the faster the large corporations gain market share. As they gain market share, they can deny market access to the lower-cost independent producers, and ultimately gain complete control of the market. When they get control of the markets, they can quickly recoup losses suffered during the period of consolidation.

As American agriculture comes under corporate control, it will respond even more efficiently to global markets – there will be no sentimental attachment of corporate producers to any particular farm, geographic region, or nation. If costs of land and labor are less somewhere other than in North America, as they almost certainly will be, then that’s where our food will be produced. Capital and management can be shifted easily from North America to other countries around the globe – as we have seen in the production of other industrial goods.

The food and fiber industry most certainly has a future, people will always need food, clothing, and shelter, and someone will provide them. But there will be no future of farming in North America unless we challenge the conventional wisdom that food should be produced wherever on the globe it can be produced at the lowest cost and that “free markets” should be the final arbitrators of all value. In fact, there will be no future for farming anywhere – not true farming -- not unless we have the courage to challenge and disprove the conventional wisdom that farmers must get bigger, give in to corporate control, or get out. But there are better alternatives for farmers and for society, if we can find the courage to challenge the basic assumptions of a society obsessed with short-run, economic self-interests. All we need is the courage to use our common sense.

Toward a Higher Concept of Self-Interests

It’s true that people, in general, will pursue their self-interest. It’s an inherent aspect of being human. But, people, by nature, do not pursue only their narrow, individual self-interest. It’s within the fundamental nature of being human also to care about other people and to want to take care of the earth. People are perfectly capable of rising above selfishness and greed to pursue a higher concept of self-interest – a self-interest that values relationships and stewardship as important dimensions of individual well-being.

This higher self-interest includes narrow self-interest (which focuses on individual possessions), but it also includes interests that are shared (which focuses on relationships, community, and social values) and interests that are purely altruistic (which focuses on interests one pursues only out of a sense of stewardship, ethics, or morality). All three – self-interests, shared-interests, and altruistic-interests -- contribute to one’s well-being or quality of life, but not in the same sense that greed might enhance one’s material success. Each contributes to a higher sense of quality of life explicitly recognizing that each individual is but a part of the whole of society, which in turn must conform to some higher order or code of natural laws.

Many different people today are pursuing their higher self-interests under a common conceptual umbrella of “sustainability.” In farming, we talk about the sustainable agriculture movement, but there are also movements in sustainable forestry, sustainable communities, sustainable development and sustainable society in general. The sustainability movement presents a direct challenge to conventional economic thinking. Sustainability includes concern for self-interests, but it goes beyond protecting interests shared with others, and the interests of future generations in which we have not even a share. All of the sustainability movements share a common goal, to meet the needs of the present while leaving equal or better opportunities for those to follow – to apply the Golden Rule across generations.

There is a growing consensus among those marching under the banner of sustainability that for anything to be sustainable it must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible. All three are necessary and none alone or no pair of two is sufficient. Economic viability is about self-interest, social responsibility is a matter of shared interest, and ecological soundness ultimately is an ethical or moral responsibility that we choose to accept for purely altruistic reasons. Self-interest, shared interests, and altruistic interests are all considered positive and worthy of pursuit. Thus, the pursuit of sustainability is a pursuit of “enlightened self-interests.” Without this enlightenment, we will not choose long run sustainability over short run greed.

Farmers, in general, presumably would not use chemicals in ways that destroy their health, poison their own food, or pollute their water supply. But the sustainable farmer must be willing to make ecological investments that will solely benefit others. Sustainability requires that we consider the health and well-being of those down wind and downstream as well as ourselves. Sustainability requires that we conserve non-renewable resources – soil, energy, clean air, and clean water -- for future generations. Thus, ecological sustainability is deeply rooted in a strong sense of stewardship – our responsibility to take care of things for the benefit of others. Stewardship is economically irrational, but still makes common sense.

Farmers, in general, recognize they must make investments of time and money in family, community and society in general – that some rewards must be shared with others. However, some may make such investments for purely selfish reasons – they expect their share of the benefits to exceed their share of the costs. But, sustainable farmers must be willing to make social investments for purely altruistic reasons – investments from which they expect no direct benefit. They benefit only from fulfilling their ethical and moral responsibilities for others. Such investments are economically irrational, but still make common sense.

The contemporary economic dimension is no less important than are the social and ecological dimensions in ensuring sustainability. A sustainable agriculture requires all three – an agriculture that is ecologically sound, socially responsible, and economically viable. Aldo Leopold, in his essay on land ethics, said we must consider the economics as well as the ethics and aesthetics. We cannot be expected to take care of others unless we are first able to take care of ourselves. Economic viability is necessary if a farmer is to maintain the authority to use the resources for which they are to be good stewards. Or to put it bluntly, if a farmer goes broke, they are not sustainable.

Conflicts arise between economics and sustainability because too often economics are allowed to dominate everything else – including relationships and stewardship. Sustainability requires a measure of profitability, but short run maximization of profit invariably leads to ecological degradation and social exploitation. Sustainability requires balance and harmony between economics and the other two. Sustainability requires that we pursue our higher self-interests, it requires that we use our common sense.

Hallmarks of New American Farm

Farming sustainably is no simple task. But, thousands of farmers are finding ways to sustain a desirable quality of life for themselves and to support their local communities while being good stewards of the land and the natural environment. They may carry the label of organic, low-input, alternative, biodynamic, holistic, permaculture, or no label at all, but they are all pursuing common economic, ecological and social goals. By their actions, these farmers are defining a new kind of American farm.

These new American farmers are a diverse lot, but they share a common pursuit of a higher self-interest. They are not trying to maximize profit, but instead are seeking sufficient profit for a desirable quality of life. They recognize the importance of relationships, of family and community, as well as income, in determining their overall well-being. They accept the responsibilities of ethics and stewardship, not as constraints to their selfishness, but instead, as opportunities to lead successful lives.

These farmers, these common people, are the architects of the New American Farm and are the foundation for new American communities. These farmers, not the experts or the scientists, are the ones on the new frontier -- the explorers, the colonists, the revolutionaries, and the builders of a “New World.” Life is difficult on the frontier because no one really knows how to do what these folks are trying to do – they are creating the future. They are getting little help from the government, their universities, or the agricultural establishment. They are doing it pretty much on their own. They will continue to confront hardships, frustrations, and there will be some failures along the road. But, more and more of these new American farmers are finding ways to succeed.

There are no blueprints for the New American Farm. But a few fundamental principles are beginning to emerge. In general, the new farming opportunities arise directly from exploiting the weaknesses resulting from misuses of industrialization -- specialization, standardization, and centralized decision making. The new American farm relies instead on the advantages of diversity, individuality, and decentralized networks of interdependent decision-makers.

New American farmers focus on working with nature rather than against it. The natural resource base that ultimately must sustain productivity is inherently diverse. Industrial systems have had to bend nature -- to augment, supplement, alter, and force it -- to create an illusion of conformity out of diversity in order to meet the demands of large-scale, industrial production. The ecological problems arising from industrialization are symptoms of natural resources being used in ways that are inherently degrading to their productivity. Thus, industrialization has created tremendous opportunities for farmers who learn to utilize the inherently productive capacity of a diverse natural resource base, rather than wasting time and money trying to force nature to conform.

These new American farmers utilize practices such as management intensive grazing, integrated crop and livestock farming, diverse crop rotations, cover crops, and intercropping. They manage their land and labor resources to harvest solar energy, to utilize the productivity of nature, and thus, are able to reduce their reliance on external purchases inputs. They are able to reduce costs and increase profits while protecting the natural environment and supporting their local communities.

New American farmers focus on value rather than costs. They realize that each of us values things differently, as consumers, because we have different needs and different tastes and preferences. Industrial methods are efficient only if large numbers of us are willing to settle for the same basic goods and services – so they can be mass produced. So, industrialization has to treat us as if we’re all pretty much the same. Customers have to be persuaded, coerced, and bribed to buy the same basic things rather than the things they really want. We pay more for packaging and advertising of food than we pay to the farmers who produce the food. The industrial system creates tremendous untapped opportunities for farmers who can tailor their products to conform to unique needs and preferences of individual customers, rather than try to bend the preferences of customers to conform to their products.

New American farmers market in the niches. They market directly to customers through farmers markets, roadside stands, CSAs, home delivery, or by customer pick-up at the farm. They use everything from the Internet to word of mouth to advertise their services. They market to people who care where their food comes from and how it is produced – locally grown, organic, humanely raised, hormone and antibiotic free, etc. They are often able to avoid some or all of the processing, transportation, packaging and marketing costs that make up 80 percent of the total cost of mass marketed foods. They increase value, reduce costs, and increase profits while protecting the environment and helping to build stronger local communities.

New American farmers focus on what they can do best. They realize that we are all different -- as producers as well as consumers. We have widely diverse skills, abilities, and aptitudes. Industrialization has had to “bend people” -- train, bribe, and coerce them -- to make people behave as coordinated parts of one big machine rather than as fundamentally different human beings. Many social problems of today are symptoms of people being used by industrial systems in ways that are inherently degrading to our uniquely human productive capacities. Thus, industrialization has left tremendous untapped economic opportunities for farmers and others who can use their unique capacities to be productive rather than attempt to conform to systems of production that just don’t fit.

New American farmers may produce grass-finished beef, pastured pork, free range or pastured poultry, heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables, dairy or milk goats, edible flowers, decorative gourds, or dozens of other products that many label as agricultural “alternatives.” They find markets for the things they want to grow and are able to grow well rather than produce for markets where they can’t compete. Or they may produce fairly common commodities by means that are uniquely suited to their talents. Their products are better, their costs are less, and their life is better because they are doing the things that they do best. New American farmers focus on creating value through uniqueness -- among consumers, among producers, and within nature.

In general, they link people with purpose and place. By linking their unique productive capacities with unique sets of natural resources to serve the needs and wants of unique groups of customers they create unique systems of meeting human needs that cannot be industrialized. The more unique their combinations of person, purpose, and place, the more sustainable will be the value to customers and producers alike. The sameness of industrialization creates opportunities for unique farmers who can create unique linkages with both resources and customers.

Critics argue that these new farm opportunities are limited. On the contrary, there is no limit to the diversity among people nor diversity within nature. There are as many niche markets as there are people. The question is one of how many different markets it is logical to serve, not how many different niche markets exist. Likewise, there are as many differences in production capabilities as there are producers, and as many different niches in nature as there are fields or places to produce.

Some question whether a sufficient number of people who are both willing and able to learn can be found to farm in these new ways. Admittedly, the new American farm will require a lot more knowledge, understanding, and thinking that does farming by industrial standards. However, any future occupation which offers an opportunity for a decent living will require the use of one’s mind. The days when someone could earn a good living by the sweat of their brow are in the past. The industrial era is over. There will be plenty of innovative, creative, hard working people to operate the new American farms, once their promise for a more desirable quality of life -- economically, socially, and ethically -- becomes widely known.

Others question whether people can afford to pay farmers the full costs of meeting their food and fiber needs without exploiting either the natural or human resource base for agriculture. However, today’s consumer, on average, spends only a dime of each dollar for food -- from which the farmer gets only one penny. Thus, most consumers can afford to pay farmers to produce the food they really want and need rather than settle for something less, particularly if that something less degrades the social and ecological systems from which consumers also much derive their quality of life.

The perceived limits to sustainable farming arise from an industrial mindset, which is rapidly losing its relevance to reality, and assumptions of contemporary economics, which are hopelessly out of date.


Blank, Steven. 1999. The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio, Quorum Books, Westport, CN. 218p.

Dali Lama, 1997. As quoted in The Wisdom Teachings of the Dali Lama, Edited by Matthew Bunson, Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England.

Leopold, Aldo, 1966. A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, Inc., Ballantine Books, New York, NY

Smith, Adam. 1776. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Fifth Edition, Edinburg: Adam and Charles Black, London, MCDDDLXI

[1] Presented Manitoba Farm Conference, Brandon, Manitoba, October 26-27, 2000.

[2] John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri-Columbia. Email: , Website: .