The Future of Nebraska’s Family Farms

With big business tightening the screws on our political representation to rid ourselves of the encumbrance that many seem to think Nebraska’s Initiative 300 is, it is time for Nebraskans to re-examine our agricultural paradigm.

A recent Nebraska Environmental Action Coalition (NEAC) meeting revealed the appropriate way of the future. NEAC was formed to assess the effectiveness of our evolving agribusiness way of life. The organization is concerned about the denuded condition of our state and believes a move away from the reigning agribusiness model would be beneficial.

The Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska (A-FAN), consisting of the usual agribusiness contingency, was there, too, assuring the NEAC membership that A-FAN’s intentions were not at cross-purposes. NEAC didn’t buy it; it already had observed the A-FAN alliance in action for several generations and recognized little mission overlap.

Where A-FAN touts bigness, NEAC touts smallness. Where A-FAN promotes a corporate approach, NEAC promotes a family approach. Where A-FAN promotes extractive production, NEAC promotes stewardship. The two could hardly be more opposite.

During the course of their joust, I was reminded of the work of Walter Goldschmidt. His 1940s study of two California Central Valley towns reveals much about the probable outcomes of the alternative NEAC and A-FAN approaches to agricultural leadership. His conclusions provide a foundation for motivating groups like NEAC in their opposition to modern corporate agribusiness.

Goldschmidt demonstrated how each approach affected the quality of life for those operating under one paradigm against the other – the A-FAN approach as opposed to the NEAC.

Goldschmidt contrasted two agricultural centers differing in only one aspect: the surrounding number of family-owned farms. Arvin and Dinuba had similar volumes of crop production and similar soils and climates. Each was the same distance from a city and similarly connected via roads and rails.

But Dinuba was the center for many small family farms, while Arvin was surrounded by just a few big agribusiness firms. Goldschmidt’s findings were astounding, and the difference between these two communities was dramatic.

Dinuba residents were investing more time and money in their community. Dinuba had twice as many civic associations and several local government bodies for direct public decision-making. Dinuba had 62 businesses to 35 for Arvin. Dinuba generated three times more in household supplies and building equipment trade. Dinuba produced greater value in agricultural production and had two newspapers to Arvin’s one.

Even institutional quality was affected. Dinuba’s paved streets, garbage and sewage disposal systems, for example, were superior. Arvin had no high school and only one elementary school to Dinuba’s one high school and four elementary schools. Dinuba had three public parks to Arvin’s single corporate-leased playground.

Goldschmidt concluded that a preponderance of large-scale farm operations created “a community made up of a few persons of high economic position and a mass of individuals whose economic status and whose security and stability are low and who are economically dependent directly on the few.”

Now it’s true that Arvin and Dinuba are nowhere close to the Great Plains, but Goldschmidt’s findings have since been corroborated in nearly 100 other agricultural counties. So perhaps they apply in Nebraska as well.

Smaller family-farm holdings in and around Dinuba supported five schools to corporate Arvin’s one. In Nebraska, as farms keep getting bigger all the time, the trend is toward fewer schools as well. Does it follow that Nebraska’s rural cultural richness — like Arvin’s — is an inevitable casualty of this trend toward “agribigness”? I think it might.

So in which direction are Nebraskans headed? Are we Arvin, or are we Dinuba? Those of us who grew up in pre-large farm Nebraska can notice the difference. Rural Nebraska has changed from Dinuba to Arvin.

But which one do we want to be? When we answer that question for each other as Nebraskans who truly want to live here, then it becomes clear which type of leadership offers the better way: the Dinuba way.

The A-FAN membership has been around a long time, and under its leadership we’ve become more solidly colonized and dependent on outside interests. Goldschmidt has shown us that the leadership choice is clear: It’s NEAC over A-FAN in a landslide.

JAMES KNOTWELL is an assistant professor at Wayne State College. Agricultural geography is among his teaching interests.