America Loves the Idea of Family Farms. That’s Unfortunate.

A farmer and his sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936. Photo: Arthur Rothstein

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.

I wish we talked more openly about this. If we truly understood how rare it is for family farms to happen at all, never mind last multiple generations, I hope we could be less hard on ourselves. Deep down we all know that the razor-thin margins put families in impossible positions all the time, but we still treat it like it’s the ideal. We blame these troubles on agribusiness — but we don’t look deeper. We should. If we’re serious about building food systems that are sustainable and robust in the long term, we need to learn from how farming’s been done for most of human history: collaboratively.

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.

Rome emptied newly conquered lands by selling the original inhabitants into slavery. In England, the Black Death killed so many nobles and serfs that surviving peasants seized their own land and became yeomen — free small farmers who neither answered to a master nor commanded their own servants. Colonial Americans, seeking to recreate English yeoman farming, began a campaign of genocide against indigenous people that has lasted for centuries, and created one of the greatest transfers of land and wealth in history.

Family farming isn’t just difficult. It’s so brittle that it only makes a viable livelihood for farmers when land is nearly valueless for sheer lack of people. In areas where family farming has persisted for more than a couple generations it’s largely thanks to extensive, modern technocratic government interventions like grants, guaranteed loans, subsidized crop insurance, free training, tax breaks, suppression of farmworker wages, and more. Family farms’ dependence on the state is well understood within the industry, but it’s heresy to talk about it openly lest taxpayers catch on. I think it’s time to open up, because I don’t think a practice that needs that much life support can truly be considered “sustainable.” After seeing what I’ve seen from 20 years in the industry, continuing to present it as such feels to me like a type of con game — because there is a better way.

America’s history is filled with examples of collaborative farming. It’s just less publicized than single-family homesteading. African-American farmers have a long and determined history of collaborative farming, a brace against the viciousness of slavery and Jim Crow. Native peoples that farmed usually did so as a whole community rather than on a single-family basis. In the early days of the reservation system, some reservations grew their food on one large farm run by the entire nation or tribe. These were so successful that colonial governments panicked, broke them up, and forced indigenous farmers to farm as individual single-family homesteads. This was done with the express goal of impoverishing them — which says a lot about the realities of family farming, security, and financial independence. It also says a lot about how long those grim realities have been understood. Indigenous groups today run modern, innovative, community-level land operations, including over half the farms in Arizona; or Tanka’s work restoring prairies, bison, and traditional foodways in the Dakotas as the settler-built wheat economy dries up.

One collaborative tradition that’s been very public about how their community-size farms function is the Hutterites, a religious group of about 460 communities in the U.S. and Canada numbering 75-150 people apiece. Despite the harsh prairies where they live, and farming about half as many acres per capita as neighboring family farmers, Hutterites are thriving and expanding when neighboring family farms are throwing in the towel.
Their approach — essentially farming as a large employee-owned company with diverse crops and livestock — has valuable lessons.

Outsiders often chalk up the success of the Hutterites, who forgo most private property, to “free labor” or “not having to pay taxes.” Neither of these are accurate. Hutterite farms thrive due to farming as a larger community rather than as individual families. Family farms can achieve economies of scale by specializing in one thing, like expanding a dairy herd or crop acreage. But with only one or two family members running a farm, there simply isn’t enough bandwidth to run more than one or two operations, no matter how much labor-saving technology is involved. The community at a Hutterite farm allows them to actually pull off what sustainability advocates talk about, but family farms consistently struggle with: diversifying.

To understand why this structure is useful, take the experience of a colleague whose family runs a wheat farm in the Great Plains. He’s trying to make extra cash by grazing cattle on their crop when it’s young. This can enhance the soil and future yields if done right, and his family agreed to it, but they couldn’t help build the necessary fence, or pay for another laborer to help him. The property remains fenceless, without additional income, and without the soil health boosts from carefully managed grazing. Community-size farms like Hutterite operations have larger, more flexible labor pools that don’t get stuck in these catch-22 situations.

Stories like this abound in farm country. America’s farmland is filled with opportunities to sustainably grow more food from the same acres and earn extra cash, thwarted by the limited attention solo operations can give. We treat this plight as natural and inevitable. We treat it as something to solve by collective action on a national level — government policies that help family farms. We don’t talk about how readily these things can be solved by collective action at the local level.

Collaboration doesn’t just make better use of the land — it can also do a lot for farmers’ quality of life. Hutterites, thanks to farming on a community scale, get four weeks of vacation per year; new mothers get a few months’ maternity leave and a full-time helper of their choosing — something few American women in any vocation can do.

We don’t have to commit to the Hutterite lifestyle to benefit from the advantages of collaborative farming. Big, diverse, employee-owned farms work, and they can turn farming into a job that anyone can train for and get — you don’t have to be born into it.

Many of today’s new farmers who weren’t born into farming are young and woefully undercapitalized, stuck in a high-labor/low-revenues cycle with little chance for improvement. Others begin farming as a second career, with plenty of capital but a time horizon of perhaps 20 years — rather than the 40 it often takes to make planting orchards, significant investments in land, and other improvements worth it. These new farmers are absolutely trying to do the right thing, but solo farming simply doesn’t give them the resources or time horizon to “think like a cathedral builder.” Good farming is a relay race. We have to build human systems that work like a relay team.

Finally, and perhaps most important, collaborative farming can be a powerful tool for decolonization. Hutterite communities are powerhouses, raising most of the eggs, hogs, or turkeys in some states — and they’re also largely self-sufficient. This has allowed them to build their own culture to suit their own values. They have enough scale to build their own crop processing, so they can work directly with retailers and customers on their own terms instead of going through middlemen. They build their own knowledge instead of relying on “free” agribusiness advice as many family farms do. In other words, they’re powerful. Imagine what groups like this, with determined inclusivity from top leadership down through rank-and-file, could do to right the balance of power in the United States.

Solo farming does work for a few. I don’t want to discount their accomplishments — but I also don’t think we can give them their due without acknowledging the uphill battle they’re in. I think it’s important to be honest about family farming’s challenges and proactive about handling them. One of the best ways to do that is to pool efforts. Our culture puts so much emphasis on one “right” way of farming — solo family operations — that we ignore valuable lessons from people who’ve done it differently for hundreds or thousands of years. It’s time for us to open up and look at other ways of doing things.

America Loves the Idea of Family Farms. That’s Unfortunate.