Americans have long cherished the family farm as the place where the patriotic virtues of rugged individualism, hard work, and selfsu. ciency are practiced best. This institution was identified as early as the eighteenth century by Thomas Jefferson and J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur and later by Frederick Jackson Turner who made the family farm the centerpiece of his "frontier thesis"; by novelists Hamlin Garland, Willa Cather, and Wallace Stegner; by modern activists like Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson; and by agricultural philosopher Paul B. Thompson. Overall, the family farm has persisted for more than a hundred years on the Plains as a decentralized cottage industry in an increasingly industrialized world. In Canada, for example, more than 99 percent of farm businesses are family operations.
Traditionally on the family farm, household members owned the land, and everyone, including women and children, worked the farm. Its sweat equity and cash flow depended upon its own resources. The family farm stood for cherished rural values of conservation, frugality, responsibility, honesty, dignity in work, belief in community, concern for future generations, neighborliness, and selfreliance. It was institutionalized by the Land Ordinance of 1785, which privatized the public domain, and by the classic 160-acre quarter section provided by the Homestead Act of 1862. The expansion of family farms across the United States was not significantly modified until the end of public land sales in 1935. Similarly, in the Prairie Provinces, the Dominion Lands Act of 1872 promoted settlement and family farms with virtually free provisions of 160-acre homesteads.
On the semiarid Great Plains, family farmers faced great challenges because of the climate extremes and repeated droughts. During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, almost half of U.S. Plains farms were abandoned. Family farmers who remained became clients of government aid, which is a necessary ingredient of survival even today. Compared to 1950, half the number of Great Plains farmers worked the same amount of land in 1980, and the number will likely be halved again by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. During the twentieth century, large-scale, centralized, industrial agriculture gradually replaced family farms to produce most of the nation's food and fiber. This put the family farm at risk. While 94 percent of U.S. farms were still small family farms in 1998–those with less than $250,000 gross receipts annually and with a net cash income of less than $23,000–they received only 41 percent of all farm receipts.
Family farming might survive into the future through niche agriculture, based on low capital investment, intensive labor and management, and high value crop and livestock production. Such specialty farming includes direct marketing of organic foods, new-generation cooperatives and enlargement of local farmers' markets, subscription farming, and farm-to-chef direct marketing, all outside the industrialized food stream. Family farming, which still works the majority of the nation's farm acreage, can also promote sustainable agriculture and reap significant environmental benefits by on-site management of soil, water, and wildlife. Family farming continues to be a major source of images, metaphors, myths, and realities about the intimate bond between humanity and the wider natural world.
John Opie New Jersey Institute of Technology
Comstock, Gary, ed. Is There a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm? Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1988.
Opie, John. The Law of the Land: Two Hundred Years of American Farmland Policy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
Strange, Marty. Family Farming: A New Economic Vision. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.