Family farming isn’t just difficult. It’s so brittle that it only makes a viable livelihood for farmers when land is nearly valueless for sheer lack of people. In areas where family farming has persisted for more than a couple generations it’s largely thanks to extensive, modern technocratic government interventions like grants, guaranteed loans, subsidized crop insurance, free training, tax breaks, suppression of farmworker wages, and more. Family farms’ dependence on the state is well understood within the industry, but it’s heresy to talk about it openly lest taxpayers catch on. I think it’s time to open up, because I don’t think a practice that needs that much life support can truly be considered “sustainable.” After seeing what I’ve seen from 20 years in the industry, continuing to present it as such feels to me like a type of con game — because there is a better way.
America’s history is filled with examples of collaborative farming. It’s just less publicized than single-family homesteading. African-American farmers have a long and determined history of collaborative farming, a brace against the viciousness of slavery and Jim Crow. Native peoples that farmed usually did so as a whole community rather than on a single-family basis. In the early days of the reservation system, some reservations grew their food on one large farm run by the entire nation or tribe. These were so successful that colonial governments panicked, broke them up, and forced indigenous farmers to farm as individual single-family homesteads. This was done with the express goal of impoverishing them — which says a lot about the realities of family farming, security, and financial independence. It also says a lot about how long those grim realities have been understood. Indigenous groups today run modern, innovative, community-level land operations, including over half the farms in Arizona; or Tanka’s work restoring prairies, bison, and traditional foodways in the Dakotas as the settler-built wheat economy dries up.
One collaborative tradition that’s been very public about how their community-size farms function is the Hutterites, a religious group of about 460 communities in the U.S. and Canada numbering 75-150 people apiece. Despite the harsh prairies where they live, and farming about half as many acres per capita as neighboring family farmers, Hutterites are thriving and expanding when neighboring family farms are throwing in the towel.
Their approach — essentially farming as a large employee-owned company with diverse crops and livestock — has valuable lessons.
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