Family farms alive and well, study shows

Contact: Maridith Geuder

When country music star Willie Nelson croons a farewell to family farms at the Farm Aid concerts, his sympathies may be premature. A Mississippi State University study concludes family farms are alive and well.

"There has been an expansion of corporate farming since the 1980s, but there also has been an apparent resurgence of the family farm in some areas," said sociologist Frank Howell of the university's Social Science Research Center.

He and researcher John K. Thomas examined agricultural census data for more than 3,000 U.S. counties. Thomas is a member of the Texas A&M University rural sociology department.

Using nearly 20 variables, they compared data from three successive census studies: 1982, 1987 and 1990. Their findings recently were published in the journal Rural Sociology.

"We wanted to track the transformation of U.S. agriculture from the 1980s, when the Midwest first began to show signs of crisis," Howell said.

Their work builds on earlier studies that classified types of farms. Unlike earlier studies, their research looks at changes in a business context and identifies three types of predominant farming organizations:

The small-farm, generally seen as the heart of farming and characterized by small acreage and family ownership. These farms often are operated full time by their residents.

The farming-firm, which involves operators who often lease land and outsource planting and production.

The corporate-commercial farm, prevalent in California and Florida and characterized by high gross farm sales, many hired workers and its own research and development operation.

Howell and Thomas discovered that the crisis of the 1980s, often perceived to be the death knell of the family farm, actually signaled transition. Their analysis showed that farming, like other industries, adjusted to the shakeout of market demands.

"As in other businesses, the most competitive survive," Howell observed. The researchers conclude that the farm crisis was the beginning of the business shakeout, with a movement from predominantly small farms to a mixture of other types.

"All types of farming were affected," Howell said. "There has been an expansion of corporate farming, but there also has been a resurgence of the family farm. In some areas, family-owned enterprises are the dominant form of farming."

The study shows that more than one-half of counties that were characterized by small farming operations in 1982 were still in that category a decade later. "Only a small number of counties actually made a revolutionary shift to another type of farming," Howell said.

In future work, the two researchers will assess the impact of type of farming organization on a community's well-being. "There's a perception that corporate farming is bad for communities because it produces an underclass dependent on the corporation," Howell said. "We'll address this issue more fully using longitudinal data."

Their recent report was supported by the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station at Texas A&M and by the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment

The study can be accessed on the World Wide Web at http:/www.ssrc.msstate/edu/publication.html. Point the browser to "The Dimensions of U.S. Agristructure: Visualizing Trends in the Farming Nebula, 1982 to 1992."