Children on the farm

The family farm model persists even in the face of consolidation and a punishing regulatory environment. But is it really viable? In my mind, the most important part of farming is that it be financially sustainable. This means that it is able to continue operations without outside capital injection (ie, debt) and without government subsidies. Further, for the family farm, it implies that the farm income be at a level which is able to support a family.

A recent article published by USAgNet brings some troubling facts to light under a hopeful title: "Farm Household Income Better Than Average". After all, the average family farm income was $77169 in 2009 and is forecast to be $86352 in 2011. Great news, right? Nope. Know why? The average family farm is forecast to receive a whopping 12.9% of their income from farming! So, in reality, the average family farm is making all of $11,174 from being a family farm. The rest comes from off-farm sources. That means one of two things: either most family farms are little more than hobby farms or most family farms are not sustainable and are subsidized by full-time jobs and government money. This is even more incredible when you consider that the average farm is in the neighborhood of 400 acres, which makes the average net less than $30 per acre.

Despite this, the growing interest in organic and local agriculture shows promise for small family farms. It is my belief that these two movements are the enablers for a return of the sustainable family farm. A 2008 study by the USDA shows that, of certified USDA Organic farms, 55% receive at least 25% of their income from farming and nearly 20% receive 100% of their income from on-farm sources. In addition, the average farm size is almost half that of their conventional counterparts. This is encouraging. There is still much work to be done but at least a promising opportunity exists.