The Nation's Pulse

The Improbable Return of the Family Farm

In a time of free market consolidation.

By 10.18.13

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A subtle shift in demographics is taking place in America. Too subtle for the mainstream media and politicians to notice.

Americans are getting back to the land. They are selling their townhouses and suburban McMansions and returning to the farm.

These prodigals are hobby farmers: retired financial planners, accountants, and CEOs who made a small fortune and then, when it came time to retire, wanted nothing more than to leave the drab, impersonal suburbs behind and relocate to 100 acres of peaceful river valley.

Many of these so-called “countrysiders” are second or third generation city folk, whose fathers or grandfathers moved to the metropolis hoping to strike it rich quick as a stockbroker, a lawyer, or some other desk professional, but whose blood stirs still with an ancient longing to get back to the land and work with one's hands, and who, in their waning years, seek the affections of country life, of church and community.

Some are aging hippies or simple-living ascetics, witnesses to the havoc materialism and industrialism have wreaked to family, to values, and to morals, who long for a simpler, more natural way of life. The fortunate ones have property to return too. Property that remained in the family long after their ancestors moved to the cities, to college, or marched off to war and never came back.

The movement — if one can call it that — is known as the New Agrariansim. Its philosophy, to quote Wendell Berry, is “to keep, to save, to make last, to conserve.” It strives to reinvigorate the household as “a center of economic productivity.” Most of all it shuns governmental assistance.

It differs greatly from environmentalism which regards human beings as the problem, as a cancer on the planet, writes Allan Carlson, a professor of history at Hillsdale College. In contrast, agrarians are “buoyant humanists, welcoming children and the close settlement of human beings on the land.”

THAT'S THE HOPE. Then there is the reality. The farmland the New Agrarians are returning to is not the land their grandparents forsook.

Rural poverty rates now hover around 16 percent. In 1941, the average farm was 160 acres in size. Today 1,700 acres is commonplace. The average farmer approaches 65 years of age. He “sits in an office before his computer, hunting for new tax loopholes and hedging on the Chicago Board of Trade,” notes Carlson.

And for good reason. Land prices have soared, as have the costs of machinery pesticides, and transportation, pricing many wanna-be young farmers out of the market.

The back-to-the-landers find a dwindling number of small farmers unable to compete with uber-efficient Consolidated Ag. They find a countryside where meth is king, and small farms are only a nostalgic memory. The mantra of today’s farmer is grow or perish.

But they are adapting. If high-yield unsustainable industrial agriculture with its indifference to family, community, and traditions holds a monopoly, then the New Agrarians have found another niche. They have created a growing market for healthy organics, and humanely treated free-range chickens and grass-fed beef. They have worked to increase the number of farmers markets, the burgeoning community-supported agriculture movement (association of individuals pledged to support one or more local farms, with growers and consumers sharing the risks and benefits of food production) and farm-to-family distributors, processors, and wholesalers of local, fresh foods.

If affordable farmland is at a premium (they ain't making any more of it), there is at least no shortage of ideas. Carlson suggests taxpayers take the annual $20 billion crop subsidies given to agribusiness and fund more than one million new family farms. “Under my fantasy, we taxpayers would at least get what we thought we were paying for all along: a well-settled countryside of happy families and rosy-cheeked children.”

But if recent history is any guide, Big Ag may soon take itself out of the picture. With the rising price of land it is only a matter of time before corporate farms move overseas where land and labor is cheaper. Perhaps then the back-to-the-land movement will really take off.

The question is can the family farm hold on that long?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.