NCDC207: Research and Education Support for the Renewal of Agriculture of the Middle
- October 01, 2004 to September 30, 2006
- Administrative Advisor(s):
Alan E Baquet
- NIFA Reps:
Statement of Issue(s) and Justification:During the past several decades, the American food system has increasingly followed two new structural paths. On one hand, small-scale farm and food enterprises in many regions have thrived by adapting to successful direct markets which enabled them to sell their production directly to consumers. This is an encouraging trend with real benefits to their communities. On the other hand, giant consolidated food and fiber firms have established supply chains that move bulk commodities around the globe largely to serve their own business interests.
This new pattern of food systems has had a disastrous effect on independent family farmers-it has led to a disappearing agriculture of the middle. These farms and enterprises of the middle have traditionally constituted the heart of American agriculture. They operate in the space between the vertically integrated commodity markets and the direct markets. While the bulk of these farms have gross annual sales between $100,000 and $250,000,3 it would be a mistake to characterize them simply as midsized or small farms. Many of these endangered agriculture of the middle farms are what the U.S. Department of Agricultures Economic Research Service calls farming-occupation farms and large family farms.
What we are calling the agriculture of the middle is, in other words, a market-structure phenomenon. It is not, strictly speaking, a scale phenomenon. Yet, while it is not scale determined, it is scale related. That is, farms of any size may be part of the market that falls between the vertically integrated, commodity markets and the direct markets. But the midsized farms are the most vulnerable in todays polarized markets, since they are too small to compete in the highly consolidated commodity markets and too large and commoditized to sell in the direct markets.
Ironically it is also the mid-sized farms that have a comparative advantage in producing unique, highly differentiated products. Their smaller size enables them to remain flexible and innovative enough to respond to highly differentiated markets. And currently the demand for such products is increasing dramatically, especially in the food service industry. These products are suitable for the market of the middle. The commodity markets are ill equipped to produce such unique, highly differentiated products, owing to the uniformity and specialization demanded of commodity markets. And the direct markets are unlikely to produce the quantity of unique products that this emerging market demands. Furthermore, direct marketing will only affect the management of a very small percentage of our agricultural lands. As Patrick Martins, director of Slow Food USA, put it, community supported agriculture programs, wonderful as they are, cant by themselves save American agriculture.
This situation presents us with a unique market opportunity. There is a burgeoning market demand for foods that are produced in accordance with sustainable agriculture standards and it is precisely the farmers of the middle who are in the best position to produce those products. What is missing is a functional value chain to connect these farmers to the markets. Our main thrust will be to help these farms develop competitive alternatives to commodity agriculturealternatives which can potentially be much more sustainable economically, socially and environmentally.
Nationally midsized farms still make up the largest share of working farms-farms where the chief source of income and primary occupation is farming. These farms also constitute the largest use of farm land and currently remain as a critical variable in rural community success. But the polarizing forces in the current market climate are rapidly driving these farms out of business.
These polarizing forces threaten to hollow out many regions of rural America by transferring most of the agricultural economic activities that have sustained rural communities, impacting agribusiness viability, job creation, and the maintenance of local tax bases. And because these are mainly farms that have been in the family for several generations (and good land stewardship is a high priority since they regard their land as part of the familys heritage and local ecological knowledge has been handed down from one generation to the next), these farms make very important social and environmental contributions.
While the majority of farmland in the United States is still managed by farmers whose operations fall between the two marketing extremes, if present trends continue, these farms, together with the social and environmental benefits they provide, will likely disappear in the next decade. The public good that these farms have provided in the form of land stewardship and community social capital will disappear with them.
The phenomenon of the disappearing middle, of course, did not emerge in a vacuum. Changes in the structure of agriculture that helped to bring about the disappearance of the middle have been occurring for some time.
How Do Declining Farm Numbers Change American Agriculture?
Farm populations in the United States have been declining for more than half a century. In fact, by the early 1990s Calvin Beale at the USDA had begun to refer to the steady decline in farm populations between 1950 and 1980 as a free fall situation leading us toward trauma. Of course, Americans continue to enjoy a surplus of food and fiber despite these steady declines in farm populations. And many agricultural experts continue to see the attrition of farmers as a necessary market correction insisting that depressed farm economies are due to inefficiencies. In their minds we still have too many farmers.
So are declining farm populations leading to trauma or to maximum efficiency? If fewer farmers are able to produce more than enough food and fiber to meet our domestic and export needs, why should we worry about declining farm numbers at all? Many policy makers, and perhaps the general public, are, in fact, not concerned. At a meeting which took place at the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture almost 20 years ago, an official of the Office of Management and Budget remarked that If two or three farmers can produce all of the food and fiber we need, who cares? In fact, if robots can do it, who cares?
But farm numbers are not the only issue at stake. If we are only asking our farmers to produce bulk commodities to be manufactured into food, fiber, energy and other products as cheaply as possible, without regard for the social and ecological costs associated with such production, then we might indeed want to stay the present course and reduce farm populations to the lowest possible number. But we have traditionally expected more from our farmers. We expect them to take care of the land for future generations. We expect them to care for their animals properly. We expect them to protect the environment. We expect them to be good citizens of their communities. We want them to provide us with food products that have unique attributes. We rely on them to provide us with food security. All of these public aspects contribute to a healthy landscape, healthy communities, pleasurable eating---and to a sustainable future.
The USDAs A Time to Choose: A Summary Report on the Structure of Agriculture, published in 1981, pointed to some of the critical issues facing agriculture that touch on these expectations. The report warned that the structure of agriculture that we choose .will shape the options available for generations to come and affect the quality of life of all citizens. The report went on to suggest that it was time to make choices concerning our immediate needs and the needs of future generations, between the maximization of current production and exports and long-run resource utilization and conservation. The most critical choice of all, the report went on to say, was deciding what structure of agriculture could meet those goals.
The report also suggested that there can be little doubt that one of the most important tasks before us is maintaining the productive capability of our resource base over the long term and that the market may fail to adequately reflect the full costs of resource use over the long run. Nothing has happened in the last 20 years to alter that assessment. Everything that has happened makes that call to action more urgent than ever.
The central question still facing us is whether we can reasonably expect farmers to provide these public services within the framework of the current structure of the food and agriculture system we have developed.
We have now reached a critical crossroads. This is not just about farm numbers or saving the family farm. The decline in farm populations, as the USDA report pointed out, is closely linked to the structural changes that drive that decline, and the disappearing middle plays an important role in that decline. Consequently, as we enter the 21st century, a whole segment of the food and farming industry - the agriculture of the middle - is about to become extinct. And the reason we are calling attention to this development is that it will dramatically change the very landscape of rural America, jeopardize the future productive capacity of the land, and severely limit our food choices.
- Identify and conduct short, medium, and long term integrated research to inform the development of business structures to support the renewal of an agriculture-of-the-middle.
- Identify and conduct short, medium, and long term integrated research to inform the development of public policies to support the renewal of an agriculture-of-the-middle.
- Creat educational materials and programs for professionals like Extension specialists, NRCS personnel, and RC&D coordinators to provide them with knowledge bases to assist in the development and evaluation of business structures and public policies that support the renewal of an agriculture-of-the-middle.
Procedures and Activities
Expected Outcomes and Impacts:
Project Participation:Include a completed Appendix E form
Attachments:[NCDC207 charts1.pdf] [NCDC207 charts2.pdf] [NCDC207 whitepaper.pdf]
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