A tragic omission in Obama’s economic stimulus package: Small Farm Revitalization
April 17, 2009
By Miguel A Altieri
University of California, Berkeley
In an unprecedented move to reverse "a crisis not seen since the Great Depression," the Obama government has rolled out his $825 billion economic stimulus package. The expectation is that this spending plan would create between 3.3 million and 4.1 million jobs. Of the private sector jobs, 459,000 would come from investing in clean energy and modernizing buildings to be more energy efficient; 377,000 would come from spending on infrastructure; 250,000 in education; and 244,000 would come in health care. Despite the fact that so-called "green jobs" will be a key economic driver during the Obama reign, small-scale and organic agriculture has been totally left out of the economic recovery strategy.
Agriculture is only mentioned as a source of fuel to feed the cars that will ride the stimulus package’s newly-repaired highways and bridges. No mention is made of the growing negative consequences unleashed by the spread of agrofuel plantations now producing ethanol and biodiesel for the global market. Not only are they producing more greenhouse gases than they supposedly capture, agrofuels, the industrial agriculture model and the global supply chains it feeds are steadily driving productive family farms out of business at the rate of 219 per day.
For every farmer in the U.S. today, there were three farmers 50 years ago. Four million farms have disappeared in the U.S. in the last 50 years. Farm bankruptcies, foreclosures and forced evictions have driven the farm population to less than 2% of the America or about 2.128 million farms. Tragically, today in the U.S. there are more prisoners than farmers. In today’s economic downturn, farmers face unsustainable levels of debt and small- and mid-sized farms could almost be eliminated in one to two decades. This is a tragedy of economic, social and ecological dimensions, as family farms constitute the cornerstone of the country’s food security and economic development. The impacts are felt beyond rural areas: in 2007, 36.2 million persons (12.4 million of them children) were food insecure.
In the meantime, as national unemployment hits 8.1 percent, millions of urban dwellers search in vain for work. Why not send them to the rural areas by creating a program aimed at revitalizing the small family farm sector? This is exactly what Japan did after World War II and now it has the second largest economy in the world just behind the U.S., with a GDP of US$4.6 trillion is 2005. Although, Japan has suffered from recession and deflationary trends since the early 1990s, its economy appears to be recovering. One important factor is the strength of the small-medium sized family farm sector, organized under a large and powerful cooperative system, that lobbies for high support prices, tariffs on imports and the maintenance of small farms.
Although conventional wisdom is that small family farms are backward and unproductive, research worldwide shows that the total output of small farms is much more productive than large farms that harvest a single crop. Integrated farming systems in which the small-scale farmer produces grains, fruits, vegetables, fodder, and animal products out-produce yield per unit of single crops such as corn (monocultures) on large-scale farms. In Thailand, farms of two to four acres produce 60% more rice per acre than larger farms. In Taiwan net income per acre for farms of less than 1.25 acres is nearly double that of farms over five acres. In Latin America, small farms are 3 to 14 times more productive per acre than the large farms. Across the Third World, small farms are 2 to 10 times more productive per acre than larger farms.
A large-scale midwestern U.S. farm may produce more corn per acre than a small farm where corn is grown as part of a polyculture that also includes beans, squash, potato and fodder. But in overall output, diversified farms produces much more food, even if measured in dollars. According to the 2002 U.S. Agricultural Census, the smallest category of farm, with an average size of two acres, netted between 10-50 times more in $ per acre than the largest farms. In the U.S., farms smaller than 27 acres have more than 10 times the dollar-per-acre output of larger farms. Not only do the top quarter of sustainable agriculture farmers, which are mostly small to medium in size, exhibit higher yields than conventional farmers, but also have a much lower impact on the environment.
Small farms are ‘multi-functional’– more productive, more efficient, and contribute more to economic development than do large farms. Communities surrounded by populous small farms have more small businesses and healthier economies than communities surrounded by depopulated, large monocultures. Small farmers also take better care of natural resources, including conserving soil and biodiversity. In the U.S., small farms have three times as many trees per acre as larger farms, have more biodiversity and do less environmental damage. And since they're diversified, they are more resilient to climatic extremes. Moreover well planned diversified farms can also produce biofuels to supply local energy, keeping farm and energy dollars circulating in the local economy.
The inverse relationship between farm size and output can be attributed to the more efficient use of land, water and other agricultural resources by small farmers. So in terms of converting inputs into outputs, society would be better off with small-scale farmers.
There is an urgent need to rethink the structure of the food and farming systems. We need policy that will create vibrant rural communities, jobs, and more healthy food by supporting smaller farms and providing incentives to help interested people get access to land. While Congress debates payments to large farms raking in over $500,000 a year, a new farm policy should also be on the agenda—one that creates rural jobs and restores the small- and medium-sized family farms as the backbone of this nation’s rural communities.