The modern world of agriculture has changed a lot, even within just the past 100 years. What started as a method for a family to feed themselves, grew into a career of people supplying food to their communities. It developed even more to the point where corporations got involved and started producing some pretty hefty quantities of food. But small family farms are still operating all over America at a pretty high rate...maybe even higher than you think.
For instance, what percentage of farms do you think are corporate owned operations? Any guesses? What if I told you that only 4% of farms in the United States are non-family owned? Believe it! There are currently about 2.1 million family-owned farms in America, making up 96% of the total of farms.
Now of course, family-owned farms come in all shapes and sizes, with some rivaling those of larger corporate-owned farms when it comes to sales dollars. Small family-owned farms (“small” being defined as making $250,000 or less annually in gross sales) still make up the bulk of all farms, accounting for 1.9 million of them and producing 15% of all products sold.
But what other differences are there between smaller family-owned farms and giant operations? While hanging out with Nathan Howell on his Needmore Acres farm, he was able to shed some light on what separates his family-owned operation from other, much larger ones.
“We are utilizing a lot of the same technologies that big farms are using, of course, on a lot smaller scale.”, Nathan said.
“One thing that is different though, is most of your industrial farmers or commercial farmers are going to be growing all kale, or they’re going to be growing all celery to go to a retail outlet with that. We’ve been able to experiment with so many different varieties of different greens. Different small plots. We’re able to offer a broad spectrum of vegetables.”
Big farms tend to focus on one crop or just a handful at most, in an effort to maximize their resources. Certain plants require very particular tools and methods of farming; when you’re a farm on a massive scale, the cost of the equipment you buy really adds up if you’re trying to grow different types of produce. On top of that, it’s simply harder for big corporate-owned farms to come up with massive quantities of food if their attention and resources are spread out across too many types of crops. And in order to make profit, they need to have huge amounts of food to sell.
As Nathan tells us, “Larger farmers are selling to box stores. They’re not going to survive selling a box of tomatoes and a box of turnips. They’ve got to have a semi-load.” Which is interesting because, for small farms and family-owned farms (like the one Nathan owns), it’s the opposite: they need a wide variety of plants and vegetables to sell.
While small farms do sell their bounties all over the country - and even the world! - they usually supply food to their local communities. Many customers even join what’s called a CSA, or a “Community Supported Agriculture” program, which is a subscription-like service where they receive a weekly surplus of fruits, vegetables, and sometimes even meats and dairy products from a local farm. When you become a one-stop shop for your local community, you want to give them options for different types of products so they don’t have to go anywhere else. If you, as a small family farm, only grew celery or lettuce, then your customers would have to travel to other places in order to buy all of the food they need...unless of course, that customer only eats celery for every single meal (which, hey, we’re not judging!).
For a while, grocery stores acted as a giant CSA for many Americans. But over the past few decades, there has been a noticeable rise in interest in joining CSAs and buying food at local farmers markets. Many people want to know where their food comes from and get to know those that are growing their food. A more personal bond is established between the producer and the consumer, which you just don’t get from scanning your veggies at the self-checkout at a grocery store.
It’s great to see that, even though technology has come a long way, there are still millions of small farms out there in the United States that operate in spirit much the same way they did for our grandparents and great-grandparents. Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.