The Experience of Existing: small family farms in the Northeast United States



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The Experience of Existing: small family farms in the Northeast United States

Helene M. Lawson1, Lawrence R. Lawson2, Jennifer Sanders Showman3


Abstract

The institution of small-scale family farming dominates the agricultural landscape in both Europe and the Unites States. Characteristically, in addition to the small size of these farms, the farm family supplies the bulk of the needed labour. The continued existence of this institution in the face of growing highly capitalised agribusinesses has puzzled many. This study explores this question through the eyes of small family farmers in the northeast of the United States. It identifies three categories of factors that farmers see as why and how they continue to farm in this traditional fashion. The first category encompasses a love for farming and deep sense of place connected to the farm land. The second category encompasses self-sufficiency and the occupational diversity of farm life. The third category encompasses the ability of small farms to exploit small markets unsuited to large businesses and the role of government in preserving these small markets. This study concludes that the most important of the three categories to perpetuating the small family farm is the love of farmers for farming.



Introduction

At the turn of the 19th century Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin (V.I. Lenin, 1920; K. Marx, 1977) believed that the institution of the small family farm was doomed to be replaced by large-scale capitalist-style businesses run like factories using hired labour. Many others believed the same. When peasantry and small scale farming didn’t succumb right away, analysts opened the question of the “persistence of peasantry” (Ensor, 1907). Many have continued and continue to believe that the end of small family farm was and is still imminent (C.S. Orwin, 1930; M. Sauer, 1990; G. Schmitt, 1991) while others see it likely to continue (C. Servolin, 1972; N. Reinhardt, P. Bartlett, 1989; M. Calus, G. Van Huylenbroeck, 2010). As recently as 2001, a beautiful photo-eulogy, Changing Works: Visions of Lost Agriculture, to the small farm in upstate New York was published in black and white photographs of typical small farm activities (Harper, 2001). But, family-run small farming, in which the role of hired labour is small, continues in New York State and other states as well. In fact it continues to dominate much of agricultural commodity production around the world (M. Calus, G. Van Huylenbroeck, 2010).

In this paper, we examine, through interviews with farmers what in their own opinion motivates family farmers to keep farming. We concentrate on dairy farmers, since two of the authors have experience as combined dairy-multicrop farmers. The geographic region of the study is limited to the northeast US, particularly western New York and adjacent Pennsylvania. In the following we compare what we have found in the lives of our participants with what has been written in the literature. Through these comparisons, we seek to identify forces that keep small farms alive.



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