Family Farms are Worth Saving


At a glance, the goal of preserving family farming in this country might seem a losing cause. Since 1910, farm families have decreased from nearly 35 percent of America's population to less than 2 percent; and the number is falling.

Since 1970 the number of farms in Idaho has declined by more than a fourth; and the loss is accelerating. In just one decade beginning in 1984, there has been a 17% decline. With the loss of farms, rural communities are giving way to suburbia, with its traffic congestion and other community-killing aspects.

Nationwide, conversion of urban-fringe farm land is between 2 and 2.5 million acres annually. This is a loss of often the richest farmland around, and is creating another problem. Food for the bulk of the population comes from farther and farther away, and in the global marketplace, from places where food safety and public health may take an even farther-back seat to agribusiness profits. The average distance foodstuffs on American tables travels is approaching 2000 miles. This is not the efficient food system that it is often and loudly proclaimed. The energy costs (from vulnerable and non-renewable sources) alone make it inefficient.

Yet the difficulty of making a living on the land, coupled with growth pressures and land speculation is rapidly converting Idaho's farmland to housing and sometimes even more noxious uses. In some parts of Idaho, super-regional landfills, intended to receive the wastes of far away industries are sprouting on scraped-bare farm fields.

It's no great mystery why farmers and ranchers are going out of business. Very simply, prices paid to producers fail to compensate for the costs of production. Conventional practices have led to steadily higher input costs, while a growing consolidation and globalization of the food industry into a few large corporations has squeezed fairness out of the marketplace, resulting in ever smaller returns to the producers.

So why should non-farmers care? Here's why: As smaller farms and ranches go under, communities lose. The loss of farms means losses to town businesses which serve them. Rural character is replaced by suburban sprawl and even less seemly development. And the growing trend towards monopolization of the food supply threatens producer and consumer alike.

THE LOSERS Clearly, urban residents and consumers are losers along with the producers. As sprawl supplants agriculture, taxes increase while quality of life decreases. That nice "open space" that people always took for granted is filled with housing and parking lots. And when the remaining agricultural land is converted to corporate feedlots, the short-term bottom line tends to override such considerations as how animal densities and their wastes may be affecting community water supplies.

THE WINNERS Consumers ought to be alarmed. While producers are literally losing the farm, supermarket prices rise. Agri-business giants like IBP, ConAgra, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland are recording record profits. For example, while family farmers and ranchers were getting 15% to 20% less for their cattle last year, meat prices at the supermarket were essentially unchanged. However IBP's profits in that period doubled from $90 million to $180 million.

Each of the "big three" had record profits over each of the last two years. These profits clearly track market consolidation. While the four largest packers slaughtered about 36% of fed cattle in 1980, they were up to 72% in 1990, and now control over 80%. According to Iowa State agricultural economist John Helmuth, who spoke at IRC-sponsored town meetings on the problem last August, "this represents the fastest increase in market concentration in US history".

The concentration of power over the nation's food supply in fewer corporate hands also means a steady loss of local control to outsiders with no accountability, an eventual loss of choice in the marketplace, and eventually higher prices at the checkout stand.


There are solutions to these problems. There is a true grassroots movement afoot working to preserve the best of the rural West. Some of its goals:

1) Promote more economically, ecologically, and socially sustainable agriculture, by building support for producers engaged in a transition to more sustainable methods;

2) Address the problems of economic concentration in the livestock industry and in other food industry segments by gaining enforcement of existing anti-trust law provisions;

3) Reorient federal farm policy to support family-scale agriculture and end the misdirected subsidization of corporate agribusiness that has given it competitive advantage at the expense of family farms;

4) End the subsidization, by every level of government, of suburban sprawl which further hastens the rapid transformation of the West's best farmland to shopping malls.

These challenges are shared by those in agriculture and in cities alike. It will take consistent efforts to promote an understanding of this shared responsibility and to build the necessary bridges between the city-dwellers and those who should be encouraged to produce their food.

Roger Hoffmann is executive director of Idaho Rural Council, a grassroots group working to sustain rural communities in Idaho. For more information call (208) 344-6184 or email:

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