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Small Farms: Perceptions vs. Realities

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Working with many small-scale farmers over the years has heightened my interest in issues involving small-scale agribusiness. I don't consider myself a small-farm guru; however, I do know someone who is. Professor Emeritus John Ikerd of the University of Missouri, Columbia, is widely regarded as a small-scale and sustainable-farming expert.

In the September 2000 edition of Small Farm Today, Dr. Ikerd, in an article entitled "Small Farms: Perceptions versus Realities," addresses common misperceptions about small-scale agriculture. I hope you find his response to a select few of these misperceptions as enlightening as I did.

Misperception: Small-farm operators are not real farmers.
Reality: Most farmers operate small farms. Admittedly, many of those census entities counted as farms are hobby farms and rural residences. But many are not. The census asks farmers to provide their primary occupation the occupation they spend more than half of their working hours on. Well over half of these primary occupation farmers have less than $100,000 in annual gross sales, and nearly half have gross sales of less than $50,000 per year.

Misperception: A family cannot depend on a small farm for a significant part of their living.
Reality: A small farm can support a family. Successful small-farm owners pursue a fundamentally different approach to farming than do big farmers. They reduce their reliance on purchased inputs by substituting labor and management for capital and purchased inputs. They are low-input farmers. They focus on creating value, as well as on reducing costs?they are niche marketers. They give individual customers what they want rather than produce bulk commodities for mass markets. They do the things they do best, the things they have passion for, and, as a consequence, do it better. These new small farms can earn far greater income per dollar of sales than can conventional large farms. A farm with $50,000 in gross sales may well contribute $25,000 or more to support the family, while a farm with gross sales of $100,000 can be a full-time family farm.

Misperception: Many small farms earn little, if any, net income.
Reality: Small farms that report little, if any, net income may still be very important economically to small-farm families. First, many families on small farms live simply. They do not live in poverty, but their economic standard of living is not as high as that of their urban neighbors. To them, farming is truly a way of life, as well as a business. The farm provides them with a home, much of their food, a good place to raise their family, a place for recreation and relaxation, a place for learning and teaching, and a place to work. Many of these farms are not obligated to report any net income from farming because quite a number of the costs of living on a farm qualify as farm costs. A large number of small farms, if they are part-time farms, need not earn an income: their nonmarket value to the family is sufficient to justify the farming operation.

Misperception: The only way for a small farm to survive and succeed is for it to get larger, to grow into more efficient technologies.
Reality: Industrial technologies developed for larger, commercial farming operations are inappropriate for small farms. Successful small farms must be management intensive and must earn more returns per acre, dollar invested, and dollar value of production. The higher returns to management from intensively managed farms come from the efficiency with which the various methods and enterprises on the farm are integrated, not necessarily from the efficiency of each method or enterprise.

According to Dr. Ikerd, the future of human civilization depends not only on food, but also on a healthy environment and a civilized human society. There is no better means of sustaining human life on earth than to have people of the land who are intellectually capable of and ethically committed to meeting the needs of both present and future generations through farming. Small farms rule!