Is it time to reshuffle the family farm?

America has a long tradition of family farms. My own ancestry includes farmers in Indiana and Illinois, as does that of millions of my fellow citizens. The land upon which this farming tradition is based was made available to families willing to farm it, many of whom immigrated to America in order to do it. It is easy to forget the connection between immigrants and the family farm, because a considerable number of generations have passed, blurring its origins.

Today, we have a situation where immigrants still perform a good deal of the farm work in America, but on very different terms. There has been a great consolidation of farms, with fewer and fewer owners running larger and larger agricultural operations, in a manner that would hardly be recognizable to the the present owners' great-great grandfathers who immigrated here, broke in the land, and raised their families on it. For example, as far as I know, I no longer have any relatives who own and operate family farms. And the immigrants aren't coming here with their families so they can have their own farms--they're coming to be farm labor on other people's farms.

A recent article pointed out an interesting side effect of the great consolidation. It seems that farmers are putting off retirement until well past age 65. In part, this is due to their long habit, and to their use of machinery that allows one man, even an old one, to run a farm. However, another important factor is that relatively few people are staying on the land. Farmers know that if they stopped farming, their land would be sold off, possibly to developers, possibly to other very large commercial operations to create even larger consolidations. But more and more often, there is no longer a connection between the family and the farm.

Now, some would say that this is perfectly desirable as an outcome. After all, the life of a farmer is one that contains a lot of drudgery, frustration, and disappointment. Why not industrialize farms? Perhaps in the end, there will be no more farm consortiums than there are automobile manufacturers or oil companies, that is, perhaps half a dozen or maybe a dozen. They will hire people to work on them using the products of their industrial peers: pesticides and fertilizers from the chemical industry; genetically engineered seed stock and live stock from the biological engineering companies; machinery from the manufacturing industries. The Calval farm corporation will compete with the Gulf farm corporation. Kismet.

On the other hand, there are at least two things that will be lost if this happens: diversity in the food marketplace, and the direct connection to the land by families or small groups that work and live on relatively small farming operations. There are somewhat abstract, and I can't really cite a lot of evidence in direct support of the idea that diversity in eating and a direct connection to the land is better than an ever-increasing consolidation and industrialization of farms, but I actually don't think I need to, It seems rather self-evident to me.

So what do we have: (1) immigrant farmers were given plots of land which they farmed and lived on, and passed on to their children, resulting in a long-lasting system of family farms; (2) over many decades, more and more families have moved on to other pursuits and their farms have been consolidated into large, semi-industrial, corporate farms; (3) the consolidation process has now reached the point to where farmers are afraid to retire, because they know that their farms will not be passed on to their families; (4) thousands of poor farmers in Mexico and other South American countries risk their lives to come to America to work in our farms. Doesn't there seem to be a rather obvious, if radical, possible solution to this developing problem?

Why not take back the land? The original land grants were motivated by the concept of the family farm. They weren't intended to create giant agricultural corporations or housing developments. If the family of a farmer who owns agricultural land no longer wants to farm it, it could be taken back--bought back, perhaps, under imminent domain--and then given away to families who will live on and farm the land. Very large farms should be broken up into manageable pieces, and given to people who will live on and work the land, under terms similar to those used in 19th century land grants. If Americans can not be found who will take up this opportunity, then the same thing will happen in the 21st century that happened more than 100 years ago: people will come into our country and meld with the land. It will become their land to an extent that most native-born Americans have never known.

Reshuffling the farmland deck like this will do two very important things: it will bring back the family farm, the backbone of the American way of life; and it will alleviate the immigration problem by providing a permanent home for a subset of the people who are sneaking under the wire to work other people's farms. A new deal for American agriculture.

Now, let's be clear: I'm not talking about all of the farmland in America. There is a trend, as mentioned in the above-cited article, for farms to be lost due to lack of interest by farming families, but this is surely a minority of the cases. I'm also not not talking about "solving the immigration problem" with this idea. There will still be a need for farm hands, just as there was 150 years ago. But at least some of the "unwanted" land ought to be made available to at least some immigrant families, just as it was to my ancestors and their families.

I believe that a rational approach to this would be to create a new designation for agricultural land that was originally granted to farmers by the government which is in danger of being lost as a family farm (or as a farm period, as for land sought by developers). The designation would be as a "family farm", and a farmer would be given this land by the government, for him or her to work and to pass on to family members in perpetuity, up until the point where no family member wanted to live on it and farm it; at that point, it would be taken back by the government and made available to some other farmer who was willing to accept it on those terms. One way to think about this would be as a kind of "family farm bank", run by the government, that would give land to farmers willing to work it in the "close up and personal" family-oriented way. If one of the products of this program was to allow former undocumented agricultural workers to become American family farmers, so much the better.

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