Why the Family Farm is Good for Rural America

The goal of saving the family farm has been used by advocates as well as critics of farm commodity policy. Advocates argue that family-sized farms will be adversely affected if farm commodity policies are severely reduced or eliminated. The assumption, often unstated, of those who argue for policies to support family-size farming operations is that communities with a large number of mid-range family farms are more vibrant than comparable communities dominated by a small number of large industrialized farming operations.

Critics, on the other hand, argue that the number of farms has dropped dramatically since the inception of farm commodity programs in the 1930s. They note that the percentage of farmers currently in the US is less than two percent and farm programs have done little to stem the tide. Some even argue that farm programs have helped finance the consolidation of farms and the trend towards larger sized operations.

In dealing with this type of discussion, it is important to understand that there are at least two different issues at stake and it is necessary to separate them from one another. They need to be dealt with one at a time.

The first issue is determine whether or not the communities surrounding family-sized farming operations are more vibrant than comparable communities dominated by a small number of large industrialized farms.

The second question is whether or not farm policies, particularly commodity policies, are supportive of family-sized farming operations. Who are the beneficiaries of a given set of farm policies (e.g. family-farming operations, industrialized farming operations, integrated livestock producers, agribusiness in general)?

If the answer to the first question is that the style and scope of farming operations makes no difference on the quality of life in rural communities, then the appeal to preserving family-sized farms loses some of its legitimacy.

In 2000, Ohio State University rural sociologist Linda Lobao prepared a report for the State of South Dakota, Office of the Attorney General examining “Industrialized farming and its relationship to community well-being.” That report may be found on the internet at

In that report Lobao examined “thirty-eight studies examining the consequences of industrialized farming” operations on their communities. These studies were conducted between the 1930s and 1999. This report was updated in 2006 by Curtis Stofferahn, rural sociology professor at the University of North Dakota, increasing the number of studies to fifty-six. Stofferahn’s update is available at http://www.und.nodak.edu/

Family farms are those operations where the “farm household owns and controls the majority of farm production factors, land, labor, capital, technology, and management.” Elsewhere, Lobao and her colleague Katherine Meyer have described these operations as ones in which “farming is a household livelihood strategy.” Industrialized farms are those where these conditions are not met and are often characterized by the utilization of production contracts so that there is “a division of labor among owners, managers, and labor with different groups of people assigned to different positions in the production process.”

Of the fifty-six studies examined by Lobao and Stofferahn, thirty-two found that industrialized farming, including large scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO), was associated with detrimental effect and fourteen found some detrimental effects.

After looking at a wide range of studies, Lobao and Stofferahn conclude that communities where industrialized farming operations predominate show “lower relative incomes for certain segments of the community, [that is] greater income inequality.” In addition, these communities were characterized by “higher unemployment rates” and lower job growth rates than in communities where family-sized farming operations predominate.

Moving from economic indicators to social indicators, the Lobao and Stofferahn studies conclude that communities where industrialized farming operations predominate experience greater social disruption: increased crime rates, “greater childbearing among teenagers, increased stress and social-psychological problems.” In areas with swine CAFOs the social disruption included “high poverty and minority populations, deterioration of relationships between hog farmers and neighbors and more stressful, less neighborly relations.”

The social life associated with large scale industrialized farming operations included less involvement of the population in civic life. An additional concern related to local governance was lower general involvement of a wide range of community members as “outside agribusiness interests increase control over local decision-making.” There were also fewer churches, poorer quality public services, and decreased local retail trade in industrial farming communities.

In communities where swine CAFOs are numerous, the studies reported reduced enjoyment of property, increased health problems, and lower real estate values. Likewise many of these communities experienced environmental problems: depletion of water, air quality problems, and the increased risk of nutrient overloads in soils.

While not all of these problems occur in every community with industrialized farming, these studies provide evidence that communities in which farming is pursued with a household livelihood strategy are more vibrant than those where industrialized farming operations predominate. Lobao concludes, “From a social science standpoint, the farming system in place today has been created from both market forces and government policy and programs. It is thus logical that government can also be an instrument in transforming this system toward greater public accountability.”

DARYLL E. RAY is the Director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). dray@utk.edu

His column was written with the research and assistance of Harwood D. Schaffer, Research Associate with APAC.


More articles by:

December 11, 2018
Eric Draitser
AFRICOM: A Neocolonial Occupation Force?
Sheldon Richman
War Over Ukraine?
Louis Proyect
Why World War II, Not the New Deal, Ended the Great Depression
Howard Lisnoff
Police Violence and Mass Policing in the U.S.
Mark Ashwill
A “Patriotic” Education Study Abroad Program in Viet Nam: God Bless America, Right or Wrong!
Laura Flanders
HUD Official to Move into Public Housing?
Nino Pagliccia
Resistance is Not Terrorism
Matthew Johnson
See No Evil, See No Good: The Truth Is Not Black and White
Maria Paez Victor
How Reuters Slandered Venezuela’s Social Benefits Card
December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front