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Tue Jun 18, 2019, 01:00 AM

America Loves the Idea of Family Farms. That's Unfortunate. [View all]


Really good piece

Family farms are central to our nation’s identity. Most Americans, even those who have never been on a farm, have strong feelings about the idea of family farms — so much that they’re the one thing that all U.S. politicians agree on. Each election, candidates across the ideological spectrum roll out plans to save family farms — or give speeches about them, at least. From Little House on the Prairie to modern farmer’s markets, family farms are also the core of most Americans’ vision of what sustainable, just farming is supposed to look like.

But as someone who’s worked in agriculture for 20 years and researched the history of farming, I think we need to understand something: Family farming’s difficulties aren’t a modern problem born of modern agribusiness. It’s never worked very well. It’s simply precarious, and it always has been. Idealizing family farms burdens real farmers with overwhelming guilt and blame when farms go under. It’s crushing.


Farming has almost always existed on a larger social scale—very extended families up to whole villages. We tend to think of medieval peasants as forebears of today’s family farms, but they’re not. Medieval villages worked much more like a single unit with little truly private infrastructure—draft animals, plows, and even land were operated at the community level. Family farming as we know it— nuclear families that own their land, pass it on to heirs, raise some or all of their food, and produce some cash crops—is vanishingly rare in human history.

It’s easy to see how Anglo-Americans could mistake it for normal. Our cultural heritage is one of the few places where this fluke of a farming practice has made multiple appearances. Family farming was a key part of the political economy in ancient Rome, late medieval England, and colonial America. But we keep forgetting something very important about those golden ages of family farming. They all happened after, and only after, horrific depopulation events.

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