Family Farming: Bucolic Myth vs. Economic Reality

Why does superior food production generate inferior income?

Our diverse, small-acre vegetable farm was in its fourth year of production. Despite what appeared to be a successful venture — a thriving farmer’s market stand, 100 loyal CSA members, and established wholesale accounts — my husband and I could not make ends meet financially.

We had a tough choice to make: either quit farming or find off-farm employment to supplement the family income, thus removing one of us from the farm.

Though many small-scale local, organic farmers are highly revered and supported by their communities, the hard truth is that it is very difficult to make a living growing the kind of food everyone wants to eat. We personally know many highly skilled former farmers who quit due to financial reasons.

How is the food system going to be revolutionized when even our best local farmers are quitting due to the economics of small-scale diversified farming?

Yes, the good food movement has come a long way in the last 20 years. More people have come to understand that small-scale diversified farming strengthens local economies, enhances environmental stewardship, and contributes to human health. Consumers have come to demand pesticide-free, just-harvested, nutrient-dense food, and they want to know that environmental sustainability, human and animal welfare, and local prosperity come with it.

In addition, many scientists now recognize that the majority of small-scale farmers carefully manage their lands to sustain remarkably high levels of productivity despite using fewer agricultural inputs. In fact, United Nations research shows an inverse relationship between land size and productivity.1 Small-scale farmers across the globe, with their intimate knowledge of local ecologies, utilize innovative land management techniques to be highly productive.

However, despite the growth in the number of farmers markets, CSAs, and local food in the grocery stores, many small-scale farmers struggle financially. Like our farm, over 90 percent of small farms rely on a secondary income source to make ends meet. Despite working long, hard days and building a loyal customer base, many small farmers are earning wages well below the poverty line.

Too many hardworking, highly skilled farmers quit simply because they can’t afford to pay their bills. A love of the job and a passion for the cause and the quality of the food cannot sustain them for long. Lifestyle choices such as having children or owning and improving land are not viable options for many new farmers.

Consider this: the number of farmers under the age of 45 dropped 14 percent between 2002 and 2007, and the number of farmers over the age of 65 increased by 22 percent in the same timeframe.2 Yet, if we want the majority of our food to come from diversified small-scale, local farms, we must increase the number of young farmers rather than watch them try out farming only to move on to more lucrative occupations.

Improving the income of small-scale farmers amidst the prevailing cheap food mentality is a daunting task, but we can begin by addressing these underlying issues:

Shift government agricultural subsidies away from monoculture, large-scale operations to diversified small-scale farms.

The top five crops subsidized in the United States are corn/feed, cotton, soybean, wheat, and tobacco. Since their inception in the 1920s, these subsidies have increasingly gone to larger farms. In the 1930s, 25 percent of the population lived on 6 million small farms across the country. But by the turn of the century, roughly only 150,000 farms accounted for 70 percent of the nation’s total farm sales, which are largely commodity crops.3 Diversified farms that produce high quality fresh vegetables and grass-fed meats and milk should be subsidized rather than commodities that end up in unhealthy processed foods.

Reduce competition from large-scale monoculture-style operations that attempt to capitalize on the demand for ethically produced food.

In many cases, the USDA certified organic food in mainstream grocery stores comes from farms and businesses that do not provide the benefits to society that the term “organic” originally signified. What was once a movement led by small-scale, diverse, local, family farms has now become dominated by industrial-scale farms that simply substitute organic inputs into mono-cropping production systems or — even worse — cheap imports from potentially fraudulent sources. These operations are corporate entities, distributing food nationwide, sometimes globally; their production systems do not always incorporate ecological principles or benefit local communities.

Today, the words “organic,” “local,” and “family farm” have all been co-opted by agribusinesses in an attempt to exploit the increased demand for quality food. Educating consumers to know their local farmers and, when locally produced foods are not available, to buy from ethical organic brands, is paramount to reclaiming original organic principles.

Increase opportunities for farmers to own farmland close to their markets.

Farmland close to cities is much more expensive than land further from town. Often, new farmers are forced to live far from their customer base, making marketing much more difficult and expensive. Landlords often do not understand the low income affiliated with farming and charge too much for rent. Thus, farmland changes hands frequently. When farmers are forced to buy land far from their customer base, consumers lose the opportunity to experience the farm.

Programs that finance and support alternative ownership of farmland close to town need to increase. For example, Equity Trust is a nonprofit that actually pays the difference between the agricultural and market values so farmers can afford to buy farmland that is of interest to developers and the rural real estate market. USDA subsidies for low interest loans to farmers also should be expanded.

Educating consumers on the ethics of food production needs to continue. The benefits from sustainable production to the environment, local economies, and human health are well studied but not reinforced in our culture. Unless we, as a society, begin to tackle these issues in earnest, with the goal of achieving a paradigm shift in our food supply system, nothing will change. Monoculture agriculture will continue to assail us with pollution and inferior nutrition if an honest effort isn’t made to support the people capable of producing superior food.


Linley Dixon has a Master’s Degree in Plant Soil and Science and is a farmer at Adobe House Farm in Durango, Colorado. Learn more at This article was previously published in the fall issue of “The Cultivator,” The Cornucopia Institute’s quarterly newsletter.

See also:
Urban Farming Is Booming In The US, But What Does It Really Yield?
Dignity, Democracy And Food: An Interview With Frances Moore Lappè