Why do we need small farms?

Richard A. Henson Center at UMES

Richard A. Henson Center at UMES

The world-wide trend in agriculture has been to specialize and scale-up. Bigger operations can be more efficient and reduce the cost of agriculture products. So why have a whole conference about small-scale agriculture? Should we even be promoting small farms?

During the Opening Remarks, speakers made it clear that small farms have their place in U.S. agriculture. University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) was established as an 1890s college. As mentioned in a previous blog, the 1890s land-grant colleges were established to provide education in several careers deemed critical to the country’s future and agriculture was one of them. Then, the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 helped bring land-grant agriculture programs to those who could not come to the classroom.

In 2011, the National Young Farmers Coalition released a report Building a Future with

2011 NYFC Survey

2011 NYFC Survey

Farmers: Challenges Faced by Young, American Farmers and a National Strategy to Help Them Succeed. The authors conducted a national survey of young and beginning farmers and the results of the survey helped to form the basis of the Coalition’s recommendations for addressing the challenges that they face. It is significant that 78% of all beginning farmers surveyed did not grow up on a farm.

It is impossible to cover all of the Conference sessions in this blog so I will just focus on a few.

Small is profitable. The 43,560 Challenge from the Virginia State University is all about how to earn a dollar per square foot on one-acre of land. Not all farms are high earners and some farms have both on-farm and off-farm incomes to pay the bills. The University project reported on its efforts to show the income potential of small farms.

cindyblogSmall builds community. Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliott was the keynote speaker. With the financial acumen of a New York City investment banker (which she was) and the heart of a community builder, she has created Foot Print Farms in her hometown of Jackson Mississippi. The farm comprises not only her goat herd and vegetable fields. She is also making land available for others to begin farming.  Her main message is about farming, but it is also about building and transforming communities, which drew her an invitation on the Katie Couric show and also a nice feature story on the USDA blog.

One suggestion that she had for beginning farmers in the audience was to make use of the vast array of USDA programs.

Small farms are incubators for beginning farmers. They are especially important for those who did not grow up on a farm and cannot buy or lease large tracts of farmland. Small farms are places to experiment, to learn how to grow, to learn about labor issues, to learn how to use equipment, to learn how to market, to learn how to be good neighbors and to reach out to communities.

Big farms, like the ones you see so often on the Eastern Shore, are important engines of our ag economy, but small farms have their place too. For beginning farmers, the Small Farm Conference was a great place to learn where and how to begin.