Many Farms Are Too Big To Survive[1]


John Ikerd


This paper was originally prepared as part of my presentation at the 2002 Small Farm Today Conference and Trade Show in Columbia, MO.  It is as relevant today as it was then.


“Get big or get out” is a refrain with which American farmers are all too familiar.  Small farms are seen as being too small to survive, and thus, unworthy of serious consideration.  For example, government programs, including publicly funded research and education, tend to focus on large, commercial agricultural operations as the future of American agriculture.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Most large, commercial farming today are too big to survive.  Small farms are the future of farming in American. 


Although the large commercial farming operations may appear to be productive and profitable, they are simply too large to be sustainable over time.  Sustainable farming operations must be ecologically sound and socially responsible if they are to be economically viable, and thus, sustainable.  As a farm expands beyond the natural productivity capacity of its ecological and social niche, it must turn to extraction and exploitation as means of maintaining its output.  Production based on extraction and exploitation quite simply is not sustainable.  Many large, commercial farms today have expanded beyond their naturally healthy size.  Their ecological, social, and economic health is declining each year.  They are dying a slow and destructive death.


Their short run profitability is achieved by exploiting and degrading the natural resource base upon which their productivity ultimately depends.  On many of these farms, for example, soil is eroding at rates far in excess of its natural regenerative ability and agricultural chemicals are polluting groundwater and streams and destroying the biological life of the soil.  Many large agricultural operations generate short run profits by exploiting and degrading the quality of life of the people who farm, the people of the surrounding rural communities, and people of society in general.  In addition, the occupation of farming is being de-skilled through corporate contractual arrangements, which reduce the function of farming to that of low-skilled, low-paid labor.  Consequently, the productivity and profitability of many large, commercial farming operations are not sustainable over time, no matter how promising they may seem today.


Why do farmers choose to operate in ways that ultimately destroy the economic viability of their farms?  The answer is, because they have lost sight of the fact that a farm is a living thing.  In the minds of many farmers today, farms are simply factories without roofs and fields and feedlots are nothing more than biological assembly lines.  Agriculture is just another industry and a successful farm must be run like any other business.  There is no natural limit to the size of industrial business organizations – the bigger they are the more successful they are considered to be.  Thus, farmers who have this industrial mindset see no natural limit to the size of their farming operations – the bigger the farm, the more successful the farmer.


Giantism – meaning fewer, larger businesses – is a classic symptom of industrialization.  Industrialization – with its specialization, standardization, and consolidation of control – recognizes no natural limits to size.  As production becomes increasingly specialized, each specialized element is standardized, routinized, and mechanized, allowing ever-larger operations to be consolidated under the control of a single decision maker.  The continuing consolidation of giant corporations today, many of which are already multinational in scope, provides clear evidence of the lack of natural limits to size for industrial business organizations.  In agriculture, thousands of production units are now controlled by a few giant business organizations, providing equally clear evidence of the lack of natural control on the size of industrial organizations that we once called farms.


But, a farm is not a machine or a factory.  A farm is a living thing.  And, all living things have a right size.  Obviously, some elephants are bigger than others and some mice are smaller than others, but the right size for an elephant is much larger than the right size for a mouse.  If a mouse were as big as an elephant, it couldn’t survive doing the things that mice do, and if an elephant were as small as a mouse, it couldn’t survive doing the things that elephants do.  But equally important, a mouse could never live to grow nearly as large as an elephant and an elephant couldn’t survive without becoming much larger than a mouse.  In nature – in the grand order or things – living things have evolved over time so their size now fits their purpose and function within nature.  Living things naturally grow to the right size to do what they need to do.


Unlike plants and animals, however, healthy farms may be different sizes.  Unlike natural organisms, farms have neither a predetermined purpose to perform nor a specific set of elements, organs, or resources to be used in carrying out their necessary functions.  Thus, farmers must decide what the purpose of their farm is to be and then must organize the resources – the land, labor, capital, and management skills – necessary for the farm to achieve that purpose.  In a sense, farmers create their unique farm organism.  However, all farm organizations still must function according the basic principles of living organisms.  So, each farmer must discover the right size necessary to keep his or her farm healthy and the size beyond which it must not be allowed to grow, because if it becomes too large, it cannot survive.


Back in the early 1960s, I had an opportunity to work with a genuine giant.  His name was Henry Hite.  Henry was one of the gimmicks we used to lure people to supermarkets to buy our bacon and hams.  (I was working for Wilson & Co., meat packers at the time.)  Henry billed himself as being eight feet, two inches tall – although the Guinness Book of World Records lists him at seven feet, nine-and-a-half inches.  He admitted to me that he wasn’t actually eight-foot-two, but said he was at least two inches taller than some other fellow who claimed to be eight-foot-even.  Regardless, Henry Hite was a tall fellow – a genuine giant.


Perhaps the thing that distinguished Henry most among his peers was that he lived to be more than sixty years old.  Most giants die young – few surviving their thirties.  Henry was lucky.  All of his abnormal growth came during his teenage years; by age nineteen, he had stopped growing.  Most giants keep right on growing, until their body becomes so large their vital organs can no longer support their bulk and they die.  For most giants, the biological processes that naturally limit the size of the human body fail to function.  They continue to grow beyond their normal size, their health begins to decline, and eventually, they die.  Henry quit growing before he grew too big to live.  He pushed the limits of size, but survived.


A farm is no different in concept from other living organisms – plants, animals, or people.  It is a complex organization of biological organisms within the soil, of plants and animals above the soil, and of the farmer, who cares for the farm and lives from the farm.  The health of the farm is dependent upon the health of its various elements, or organs, but also, upon the health of the relationships among the various organs that make up the living organism or farm as a whole.  And, as with all other living organisms, each farm has a healthy size, beyond which its health begins to decline, and a maximum size, beyond which it will become sick and die.


In general, the health of a farm depends on its ecological, social, and economic dimensions.  A healthy farm, as with any other living organism, must function in harmony within its ecological niche.  The farm organization and the diversity of its enterprises must fit its natural environment and the diversity of its natural resources – its climate, land, and biological environment.  A healthy farm also must function in harmony with the people who farm the land and the people affected by the way it is farmed – the farm family, community, and society.  And a healthy farm must meet the realistic expectations of those who depend upon the farm for their economic livelihood.


A farm that expands beyond its ecological niche invariably degrades its natural resource base – soil, air, or water – and eventually diminishes its health and productivity.  If it persists in trying to function in conflict with nature, the farm will not survive.  A farm that expands beyond its social niche invariably creates conflicts within the family, within the community, or within the larger society.  If it persists in trying to function in conflict with its social environment, the farm will not survive.  However, a farm that fails to expand enough to fulfill its economic purpose, without creating ecological or social conflict, likewise, is not a healthy farm.  For a farm to be healthy, it must be of a size that allows balance and harmony among its ecological, social, and economic functions.  It needs to grow large enough to be productive, but if it becomes too large, it will become sick and die, and thus, will no longer serve any purpose, economic or otherwise.


Eventually, farmers must come to realize that agricultural industrialization is in direct conflict with nature’s requirements for agricultural sustainability.  And, the laws of natural sustainability cannot be changed, even with the most sophisticated of industrial technologies.  Farms with a future must be of a natural right size; most farms of the future will be smaller.

[1] “Sustaining People through Agriculture series,” Small Farm Today Magazine, Missouri Farm Publications, Clark, MO. Sept-Oct, 2004.