Reclaiming the Future of Farming[1]

John Ikerd[2]

I talked about the future of farming when I keynoted the last Upper Midwest Organic Growers Conference in 1999—and will do so again here today. At that conference at Sinsinawa Wisconsin, I began by reciting the first few lines of the Creed of the Future Farmers of America: “I believe in the future of farming with a faith born not of words but of deeds--achievements won by the present and past generations of agriculturists; in the promise of better days through better ways, even as the better things we now enjoy have come to us from the struggles of former years.”[3] I believed those words when I learned them as a FFA member in the mid-‘50s, and I had spent much of my life trying to live out those words. But by the time of the conference in 1999, I said I simply could no longer believe they were true.

I said there would be no future of farming if the dominant trends of the late 20th century were allowed to continue in the decades ahead. As I pointed out, “every time the average farm size goes up, the number of farmers goes down. Every time a farmer signs a corporate production contract, a farmer becomes a ‘corporate hired-hand.’” I said there would be no future in real farming unless “we have the courage to challenge and disprove the conventional wisdom that farmers must either get bigger or get out.”

Even then, the mainstream farming publications were filled with stories about a new high-tech future for farming. Genetically modified plants and animals, precision farming, and farming by computer-driven robots were hailed as the future of farming. All of these technologies would lead to still bigger and still fewer farms. In addition, once farming could be done using drones and robots, the farming could be done from a corporate headquarters in a city somewhere rather than on farms—something like “drone warfare” is carried out today. The computer programming and genetic engineering obviously would take place in corporate tech centers--not on farms. If the working part of farming was done by computer driven machines and the thinking part no longer took place on farms, agricultural production would simply no longer be farming.

I warned that even the future of organic farming was at risk. I said, if organic becomes defined by organic materials and methods, rather than the ethics of organics, organic production could be industrialized and taken over to agribusiness corporations. “The materials and methods may be organic but the paradigm for production will be industrial. Allowable materials and methods will be changed over time, if necessary, to accommodate the industrial paradigm.” I pointed out that national organic standards would almost certainly put a large portion of organic farmers out of business.

I believed then, and I still believe, the future of farming is at risk. The primary focus of my 1999 presentation was on the future of small family farms—those most threatened by large-scale, industrial agriculture. In spite of the challenges, my vision for the future of farming was still hopeful. In the quest for agricultural sustainability, I saw the possibility of a promising future for small family farms. The word sustainable has been so abused and intentionally misused that many early advocates have abandoned using it. However, the meaning of sustainability is straightforward: Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future. Sustainable farms must have the ability to meet the basic food needs of all today and do so in a way that maintains their productivity for those of tomorrow, indefinitely—permanently. Sustainable farms must maintain balance and harmony among nature, society, and economy—among the ecological, social, and economic functions of farming. That’s what real family farming has always been about: farming not only as a way to make an economic living but also as a social and ethical way of life. I believed, and still believe, that agricultural sustainability will be far easier to achieve with small, diversified family farms than with large industrial agricultural operations.

I envisioned then and still envision sustainable agriculture as a new post-industrial paradigm or model for American agriculture. The quest for agricultural sustainability emerged in the early 1990s to address problems created by agricultural industrialization. Industrial farmers apply the basic strategies of industry to agriculture to achieve economic efficiency. They specialize, standardize, routinize, and mechanize in order to achieve the economic efficiencies of large scale production—economies of scale. Their myopic focus is on the economic bottom line, regardless of the ecological or social consequences. Society and nature are treated as economic resources to be exploited rather than social and ecological responsibilities to be honored. The early focus of sustainable agriculture was on problems of environmental pollution and natural resource degradation. However, the first requisite of sustainability is to meet the needs of the present—including the basic food needs of all—food security. Sustainable agriculture must also acknowledge and help repair the social and ecological degradation or rural areas brought about by the relentless pursuit of profitability and economic efficiency.

The quest for agricultural sustainability continues today under various names, including “real” organic, biodynamic, ecological, biological, holistic, natural, and currently most popular, regenerative agriculture. One thing all of these approaches have in common is they are knowledge-based or knowledge intensive approaches to farming. Sustainable farmers are “thinking workers” and “working thinkers,” as my late friend Dick Thompson used to say. To work with nature and people, farmers have to understand how nature works and how people think. This isn’t easy but they do it by working with, rather than against, nature and society. In economic terms, this means sustainable farms are “management intensive.” They rely more on management and skilled labor and rely less on land, unskilled labor, and capital. They rely more on management of nature’s biological and chemical processes and less on off-farm inputs and industrial technologies. I believed, and still believe, sustainable farming would reverse the relentless trend toward fewer farms and farmers, more hired farm managers, managing more land, more capital, and more unskilled labor per farm on ever larger farming operations.

I believed, and still believe, the sustainable agriculture movement is part of a larger post-industrial transformation that eventually will reverse the negative ecological, social, and economic trends of industrialization—locally, nationally, and globally. In my earlier presentation, I quoted several of the most prominent American futurists of the time who were writing about such a transformation. For example, Peter Drucker, the inventor of the academic term, business management and a highly respected consultant to twentieth-century industry, wrote this in his book Post-Capitalist Society: [4]

"Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation. Within a few short decades, society rearranges itself -- its worldview; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions. Fifty years later, there is a new world. He wrote, “We are currently living through just such a transformation." "In the knowledge society into which we are moving, individuals are central. Knowledge is not impersonal, like money. Knowledge does not reside in a book, a databank, a software program; they contain only information. Knowledge is always embodied in a person, carried by a person; created, augmented, or improved by a person; applied by a person; taught by a person, and passed on by a person. The shift to the knowledge society therefore puts the person in the center."

To me, this meant that within a few short decades the sustainable agriculture movement would restore farmers—real people, not off-farm technology—to the central role in agricultural production. This would mean more farmers and more farms—more small, family farms. People—specifically knowledgeable, thoughtful, caring, farmers—are central to the authenticity of organic, biodynamic, ecological, ecological, holistic, natural, and regenerative farming. Farmers of the future wouldn’t need a lot of land, capital, or hired laborers to be successful, they would rely on knowledgeable, thinking, caring people. This focus on people would give small family farms an economic advantage. I concluded, “In the society of the future—the society that puts people at the center—there will be a place of honor for sustainable small farms.”

Free to live anywhere, many of the new knowledge workers would choose the pristine landscapes and bucolic lifestyles of thriving rural communities. I envisioned sustainable small farms as the centerpiece of an economic and social renaissance in rural America. Looking back over the past 20 years, I was obviously wrong, at least about the timing. The sustainable agriculture movement has not gone away. It has persisted—struggling or flourishing, depending on changing public perceptions and concerns. For example, the current popularity of regenerative agriculture, holistic management, and agroecology stems from growing public concerns about the negative impacts of climate change. However, there has been no “great transformation” in agriculture. In fact, we have seen the industrial paradigm tighten its grip on American agriculture through increasing multinational corporate control of the entire agri-food system—through comprehensive production contracts and outright ownership of farming operations. Conventional farming has become even more capital-centered and less knowledge-centered; more profit-centered and less people-centered.

What happened to stop, or at least delay, the great agricultural transformation that seemed so promising at the turn of the century? I think the futurists, myself included, failed to appreciate the growing economic and political power of the multinational agribusiness corporations and their determination to dominate the agricultural economy. When the federal government essentially quit enforcing corporate antitrust policy in the 1980s, it essentially freed the large corporations to take control of government. Economic colonization[5] is a term that seems appropriate to describe the corporate domination of rural areas around the world, including rural America. The term is typically used in reference to the so-called developed nations using their economic power to continue dominating less-developed nations that were previously colonized politically. Instead of colonization by national governments, the colonization today is being carried out by large, multinational corporations. Much like colonial empires of the past, the economically valuable ecological and societal resources of rural areas, including rural people and cultures, are being exploited not to benefit rural people but instead to increase the wealth of corporate investors. These large, publicly traded corporations are purely economic entities with no capacity for concern or commitment to the future of rural communities. Their only interest is in extracting economic wealth from rural areas.

Whether intentional or coincidental, industrial agriculture has been the primary means of colonizing rural America. Agribusiness corporations gain political legitimacy and elicit economic concessions from local government officials through false promises of rural economic development. The largely unregulated industrial agriculture erodes the fertility of the soil and poisons the air and water with chemical and biological wastes. Comprehensive corporate contracts replace thinking, caring farmers with tractor drivers and corporate hired-hands. Once the productivity of an area has been depleted, the corporations will simply move their operations to other areas of the nation or world where land is still productive and labor costs are cheaper—as we have seen with pineapple and sugarcane production moving out of Hawaii. Rural communities are left with depleted soils and aquifers, streams and groundwater polluted with agricultural chemical and biological wastes, and farmers who no longer know how to farm.

Obviously, farming communities did not become places where the knowledge workers of the 21st Century have chosen to work and live. Wendell Berry—farmer, philosopher, and author—in a 2017 letter to the New York Times described it this way: “The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price. As apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back. Too many of the children are not working at anything, too many are transfixed by the various screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying.”[6]

The promise of a social and economic renaissance became social and economic desecration. A 2017 Wall Street Journal article labeled rural America as the “New Inner City.” In terms of poverty, education, teenage births, divorce, premature death, disability, and unemployment, rural counties now rank below inner cities.” [7] Drug abuse and crime, once urban problems, now plague rural communities. The rural communities that thrived socially and economically during the 1940s and 1950s, when I was a member of Future Farmers of America, are but a distant memory.

What did we gain from all of this economic desecration of rural America? Very little! Admittedly, American consumers on average spent less of their disposable income on food in the late 1990s than in the 1970s. Over the past 20 years, however, food prices have risen faster than the overall rate of inflation.[8] Furthermore, industrial agriculture didn’t feed the hungry. In fact, more people are now classified as “food insecure” than back in the 1960s.[9] In 2018, one-in-nine Americans were classified as food insecure and one-in-seven American children lived in food-insecure homes.[10] Whatever has been gained by lower food costs has been more than offset by rising costs of health care. An epidemic of diet related illnesses; obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancers, now threatens the physical and financial future of the nation. Costs of health care are projected to account for one-fifth of the GDP by 2016.[11]

Why did we Americans let this happen? Or was it inevitable? The industrialization of American agriculture was made possible by post-World War II agrochemical and mechanical technologies, however, it was “made inevitable” by supportive government policies. The specialized, mechanized, large-scale nature of industrial farming that makes it economically efficient also makes it inherently economically risky. Farmers are forced to make large investments in land, buildings, and equipment in operations that are inherently vulnerable to unpredictable weather that can devastate crops, diseases that can wipe out livestock and poultry operations, and to unprofitable prices in markets characterized by periodic overproduction. So, American taxpayers were asked to absorb much of these risks through U.S. farm policies—including various kinds of price supports, deficiency payments, subsidized crop insurance, disaster payments, subsidized interest rates, loan guarantees, and investment tax credits. All of these programs, in one way or another, incentivize or subsidize industrial agriculture.

The industrialization of agriculture was a bold experiment, and it was well-intended—at least by many of its earlier advocates. I was one of those advocates during the first half of my 30 year academic career. I thought by improving the economic efficiency of farming, we would bring down the cost of food and make good food affordable for everybody. I thought the focus on economic efficiency would create profit opportunities for progressive farmers and support economically viable rural communities. However, during the farm financial crisis of the 1980s, I was forced to face the hard, cold reality that it had done none of these things. The industrialization of agriculture was well intended, but it simply didn’t work.

Regardless, many farmers continue to support it because they feel trapped by large investments in land, buildings, and equipment. They are trapped by government policies that encourage and enable them to keep doing what they are doing. They are also trapped by a “commercial farming culture” that has been skillfully crafted and protected by corporate agribusiness. So, what will it take to reclaim the future of farming? One of my professors at the University of Missouri, and later a mentor, was Harold Breimyer—a distinguished agricultural economist. Harold frequently reminded his students and others that “Americans can have any kind of agriculture we want.” He said we simply need to implement the right farm policies to get it. He was right. If we are to fundamentally change American agriculture, we must fundamentally change U.S. farm policy.

So what will it take to bring about another transformation in American farm policy? I personally believe it will take nothing less than a major consumer/taxpayer revolt. The corporate agri-food establishment has used its economic power to gain political power and now has firm control of the farm and food policy making in Washington DC and in statehouses across the country. No substantive change in farm policy can survive the political process without the endorsement or acquiescence of the corporate agricultural establishment.

Each new Farm Bill promises to conserve and protect natural resources and support independent family farms and rural communities. With each new Farm Bill the negative environmental and societal impacts of agriculture continue to grow and there are fewer independent family farms and fewer economically viable farming communities. Conservation programs such as Sod Buster, Swamp Buster, and the Conservation Reserve Program that limit crop production are more about temporary surplus reduction than permanent environmental protection. If we keep accepting the same kinds of farm policies we have accepted in the past, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, we are going to keep getting the same kind of agriculture we have been getting.

We need to start with a common understanding that the only politically defensible justification for government farm policies is to ensure domestic food security. That’s why government food assistance programs have always been administered through the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA). Logically, programs promoting farm exports should be administered by the Dept. of Commerce and biofuels programs by the Department of Energy. Domestic food security was the political justification for the initiation of U.S. farm policies of the 1930s, which included the Food Stamp program. The nation was in an economic depression. Farm families were going broke in numbers that put the nation’s food security 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 incentivize and subsidize industrial agriculture. Hunger in America had again become a major public concern during the 1960s. During the early 1970s, the Nixon/Butz administration used the promise of domestic food security to convince Congress of a need to change U.S. farm policy—and it worked. U.S. farm policies since the 1970s have succeeded in creating the kind of agriculture envisioned by the Nixon/Butz era policy experts. They simply failed to anticipate the negative environmental, social, and economic consequences.

However, for the first time since the 1970s, I see the possibility for a revolutionary, transformational change in U.S. farm policies. We have presidential candidates who are vowing to take on the corporate agricultural establishment and restore economic competitiveness to agricultural markets. Several candidates have also vowed support for a 2019 Congressional Resolution calling for a Green New Deal[12] that would fundamentally change U.S. environmental, social, and economic policies—including farm policies. Perhaps most important, it reaffirms the responsibility of government to ensure domestic food security—enough good, healthful food for all. The resolution focuses on the challenges of climate change but calls for fundamental changes that would reach far beyond reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses. The ecological, social, economic inequities in farming, rural communities, and society in general are but different dimensions of the same basic problem and will require a common solution.

The Green New Deal has not been approved by the U.S. Congress. It is simply a proposed congressional resolution that has never been formally debated in Congress or put to a serious vote. Still, it has been endorsed, to one extent or another, by every major contender for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States for the upcoming 2020 national election. This is the first time since the 1970s that many of the policy proposals have even been seriously discussed. The Green New Deal will be opposed by virtually every major organization and by many farmers who feel trapped in the current industrial system of commodity production. However, it is supported by a large number of progressive farm organizations and by many farmers who have been advocates for sustainable agriculture, by one name or another, for decades—without the support of their government. In the Green New Deal, there is still hope that the bright future of small, family farms I talked about in 1999 will become a reality.

The Green New Deal calls for farm policies supporting “sustainable agriculture.” It “will require the following goals and projects… “(G) working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to [reduce] pollution and greenhouse gas emissions…, (i) by supporting family farming; (ii) by investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health; and [it would provide food security] (iii) by building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food… (J)… restoring natural ecosystems through proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage…; (K) restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems through locally appropriate and science-based projects that enhance biodiversity and support climate resiliency.”

In addition to presidential candidates, various non-profit organizations are shaping their policy agendas around the principles expressed in the Green New Deal. One such organization is Data for Progress,[13] which is supporting the Sunrise movement—a self-proclaimed army of young people to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.[14] These bright, young people have educated themselves on issues and understand that our failure to address critical ecological and social challenges is a direct threat to their future. They have developed a “Green New Deal Policy Series” outlining specific policy proposals. A bold policy statement, “Regenerative Farming and the Green New Deal,” was released in January 2020.[15] The following policy proposals are excerpts from this document.

Reform current monocultural crop insurance programs.

o Limit eligibility for government subsidized crop insurance to crops grown using approved soil conservation practices.

o Place limits of total acreage and insurance coverage to $250,000 market value of all insured crops eligible for government subsidized crop insurance.

o Over time, phase out government subsidized crop insurance programs for single crops and all commodity-based programs unless accompanied by supply management programs.

● Replace the current crop insurance with a Whole-Farm Net Revenue Insurance program that shares risks of transitioning to regenerative, sustainable farming systems.

o Modify current USDA Whole-Farm Revenue Protection program, but to guarantee a level of farm family income on parity with non-farm family income.

o To qualify for government sustainability transition payments, farmers would be required to submit a whole-farm plan for a regenerative farming system.

o To provide domestic food security, the transition program would logically focus on incentivizing full-time family farming—“Family Farm Transition Program.”

o Government transition incentives could be in the form of guaranteed “tax credits,” similar to those in current “Earned Income Tax Credits.”

● Support existing programs to prepare farmers for a transition from monoculture farming to soil building, carbon sequestering, regenerative farming systems.

o Reward farmers for undertaking practices that enhance ecological functions through government programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program.

o Pay farmers to retire croplands to native prairie in historic prairie areas. Use geospatial technology to locate places that could be retired to prairie.

o Incentivize pasture intercropping/rotational pasture crop systems in areas of lower yields croplands to reinvigorate them and add to income streams for regenerative farming.

● Transform training for existing U.S. soil health experts. Current emphasis on conservation practices needs to be integrated into regenerative whole farm plans.

● Grow the agricultural research and development budget to improve carbon sequestration practices and climate resiliency.

● Establish a National Composting Service to purchase and market compost, biochar, and mulch to provide additional income to farmers.

Many policy wonks are skeptical of the Green New Deal because of its lack of detail. However, it was never meant to be a policy prescription but instead a set of guiding principles. Perhaps the strongest opposition comes from those who realize that policies reflecting its core principles would fundamentally change U.S. farm policy. Quoting Molly Anderson, a highly respected international scholar and expert in matters of agri-food sustainability wrote, “Among the requirements for transformation is a citizenry that is sufficiently outraged by ‘business as usual’ to demand change by electing people to public office who will support the public good instead of private interests, and then holding those officials accountable.”[16] The Green New Deal is an expression of public outrage at the government’s failure to deal with critical issues.

I believe the kind of public outrage needed for a transformation in farm policy will be similar to the outrage that brought about the American Revolution. As in the American Declaration of Independence, I believe the most important principle expressed in the Green New Deal is the reaffirmation of the responsibility of the government to protect the basic human rights of people. It states: “It is the duty of the Federal Government to… (D) to secure for all people for generations to come— (i) clean air and water; (ii) climate and community resiliency; (iii) healthy food; (iv) access to nature; and (v) a sustainable environment; and (E) to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression”[17] It clearly states that clean air and water, healthy food, community stability, a sustainable environment, and freedom from oppression are basic rights of all people for all generations.

These expressions are similar to those of the founders of the United States when they drafted the American Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” The fundamental purpose of government is to secure the God-given, unalienable, basic human rights of all. We have the right and responsibility to alter or abolish any government that fails to fulfill this responsibility.

The Green New Deal is not socialism. It is fundamental American democracy. If we have a right to life, we have a right to clean air, clean water, and healthy food—these are essential to life and of liberty to pursue happiness. People, young people in particular, are demanding a fundamental change in farm policy because industrial agriculture is polluting their air and water, tainting their food, and contributing to the ecological problems that threaten their future and the future of humanity. There is a growing sense of public outrage about the failure of governance.

Americans eventually will “elect people to public office who will support the public good instead of private interests, and will hold those officials accountable.” This can be done, and we now have the best opportunity in the past 50 years to do it. I still have hope that together we can create a bright future of small family farms and can bring about an economic and social renaissance in rural America. I still believe in the future in farming, even if based more on faith that on past deeds. I have faith that together we can and will reclaim the future of farming.


[1] Prepared for presentation at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference, La Crosse, WI. February 27-29, 2020.

[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] John Ikerd, Small Farms; Their Role in our Farming Future,” presented at the Upper Mid-West Organic Growers Conference, Sinsinawa, WI, 1999.

[4] Peter Drucker, The New Realities. Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc. New York, NY. 1989.

[5] John Ikerd, “The Economic Colonization of Rural America,” Rural Sociology Society Annual Meeting, Columbus, OH, June 23-27, 2017, .

[6] Wendell Berry, “Southern Despair,” New Your Times Review of Books, Reply to Nathaniel Rich, May 5, 2017 .

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

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

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

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

11] John Commins, “Healthcare Spending At 20% Of Gdp? That's An Economy-Wide Problem,” Health Leaders, September 19, 2018. .

[12] 116th CONGRESS. (2019). 1st Session. H RES 109. Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal. .

[13] Data for Progress, .

[14] Sunrise Movement, .

[15] Mackenzie Feldman, John Ikerd, Seth Watkins, Charlie Mitchell, and Johnny Bowman, “Regenerative Agriculture and the Green New Deal,” Data for Progress, Green New Deal Policy Series, Food and Agriculture, January 2020. .

[16] Molly Anderson, The importance of vision in food system transformation. “Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.” (2019).

[17] 116th Congress. (2019). 1st Session. H. Res. 109. Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.