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

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The future of anything cannot be predicted with certainty. Estimating the future of family farming in western New York and northern Pennsylvania depends on how you look at it. Different measures of the extent of small farming show it as either growing or shrinking. Family farming remains the majority mode of farming in PA and western New York as well as around the world. Virtually all small farms in Pennsylvania are family farms in that they are operated by families. A 2006 review of family farm operations in Pennsylvania stated that:

Sixty per cent of the state’s dairy farmers are considered to be small, having 30 to 100 cows, with an average herd size of 58. With their weathered wooden barns, towering silos, and lush pastures, small dairy farms have long been a fixture of the Keystone State’s rural landscape (Mulhollem, 2008, p.2).
This agrees with our own observations of the region we studied. Furthermore, what Mulhollem considered small is in our opinion quite small for today’s family-operated dairy farms that often have more than 100 cows.

Taking the truism about how one looks at family farming literally as a thought experiment, the authors compared their photographs of farm operations taken in both digital colour and in black-and-white film with photographs from the past. Comparing the black and white photographs with archival ones including those of the second author’s family’s farm at the turn of the 19th century they noted that, apart from the disappearance of draft horses, farming looked much the same today as it did 100 years ago. Comparing black and white with colour suggested a different mood between the two to the authors. Those in black-and-white evoked a romance of a time gone by – the mood of upstate New York farming as portrayed by Harper (2001). Farming in colour seemed comparatively new and progressive. The sense of apparent loss evoked by the photographs goes beyond just film. We believe we perceive loss in the photograph because it is already a part of our culture to mourn (in advance) the loss of Mother Earth – especially appropriate for the farm that produces milk. But, this threat of loss fosters the yearning that appears to be the most important mechanism keeping small farms alive, the attachment component of the love of farming for its own sake, one of the three categories of beneficial factors we have discussed. The essentials of family farming and probably the forces that sustain it seem unchanged over the decades.

Three categories of factors emerged from interviews with small farmers and constitute what they thought was important. None of them are really new. The importance of attachment seems to have been underestimated in the literature while, apart from farmers, self-sufficiency is becoming a novelty in this present age of routinization of work through specialisation (Harper and Lawson, 2003). Niche marketing strategies are at least as old as Chayanov, but the niches, arising from shifting tastes for food, are themselves necessarily new in any given moment of time. The factors we have discussed are the love of farming, self-sufficiency through universality and the ability of small farms to exploit small markets that are either overlooked or unsuitable for large scale agribusiness.

Small producers can participate in both small and large markets. However, large producers must participate in large markets. Traditionally, small farms largely sold to wholesalers and thus participated in large markets. As is well-known, this style of management kept the farmer on the upper edge of production intensity. A poor harvest would lead to a deficiency in the circulating capital needed to initiate the next year’s growing season and result in the well-known cycle of “farm debt”. While “economies of scale” do not appear as the dominating forces in agriculture (Schwartzweller, 2000; Y. Kislev and W. Peterson, 1996) large scale agricultural producers do appear to have ways of “mulching the market” to discourage competition from small scale producers; our participants attested to this. Thus, small producers often seek small markets even when this entails making farm production part time. Besides producing value-added products such as cheese, small markets include localised markets for ordinary farm products. Localised markets will exist so long as processing and specialised transportation costs limit the geographic range for the sale of fresh milk, meat and produce. Small family farming seems likely to persist in the foreseeable future.

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