Our small farms are good for the world. They provide fresh, healthy food to their communities, they are responsible and caring stewards of their land, and their regenerative farming practices are more friendly to the environment than the practices of large farms growing corn or soy as monocrops with nitrogen fertilizer. But small farms are inherently less profitable than larger ones: the economy of scale means that growing thousands of bushels of corn is far more efficient than growing a few dozen acres of diverse vegetables. Thus, the owner of a small farm hoping to make a profit off of their hard work cannot charge the low food prices that big farms are able to offer and will become outcompeted without extra support from the community. The government could be a strong force to counter this inequity in order to promote the existence of successful small farms in the U.S., but instead its farm subsidies and regulations magnify the advantages of large farms and inhibit smaller ones.

The help the government does give to farmers goes disproportionally to large farms. In 2018, President Trump signed a bill renewing a $867 billion farm subsidy plan, giving the USDA money to renew its over 80 year old tradition of, among other things, allowing growers to apply for subsidies awarded based on production. These subsidies guarantee growers a minimum revenue per bushel of “program crops,” a term which the USDA Economic Research Service’s 2019 report on America’s farms describes as including “barley, corn, dry edible beans/peas/lentils, oats, peanuts, rice, sorghum (grain), soybeans and other oilseeds, canola, and wheat,” crops usually grown in monocultures and which small farmers are less likely to produce.

Since the money is allocated based on yield size without regard to the financial needs of the farm, it ends up supporting primarily huge agriculture companies which are already making large profit margins. According to the USDA’s 2019 report, 97.9% of U.S. farms are family farms, meaning that the “principal operator and people related to the principal operator…own a majority of the business.” The report shows that 69% of commodity-related payments went to the top 8.5% of these farms, and only 6% of the payments went to occupation farmers with gross cash farm income less than $150,000 (31.7% of U.S. farms fall into that category).

Millions of dollars of farm subsidy money doesn’t even end up going to real farms, but ends up in the hands of local governments, state universities, and even airports, according to data from the Environmental Working Group. The group’s report stated, for example, that between 1996 and 2001, the Walla Walla Regional Airport in Washington state received $67,222 of farm subsidy money. Some people who own land which used to be farmed for rice now get subsidies for their lawns, and historical societies receive tens of thousands of dollars of this money intended for farmers.

Many small farmers simply don’t have time or inclination to apply. The application process for farm subsidy money is necessarily bureaucratic, involving time-consuming paperwork, and while larger companies hire staff to do this kind of work, small farmers are busy doing the actual work of growing food. Moreover, receivers of subsidies have to grow their crops to government standards, using farming practices like antibiotics for animals and specific pesticides which the farmer may not wish to use.

Another major way the government advantages larger farms is through its health and building codes. These regulations, designed for industrial scale agriculture, are often formidable financial obstacles to smaller farms for which these rules are not reasonable or appropriate. For large factory farms with their crowded feedlots and gargantuan meat processing facilities, they are not only reasonably easy to meet, but necessary for food safety. But on small farms, they cause unnecessary and often ridiculous barriers and stifle economic growth. In the January 2003 issue of the National Review, Rod Dreher tells the story of Jenny Drake, a small meat farmer in Tennessee who couldn’t find a place to slaughter her chickens.

The state says no bird in Tennessee can be sold without USDA inspection of the processing facilities,” says Drake. “Here’s what kills all of us small poultry farmers: There are no USDA custom-kill processing plants in the entire Southeast.

Drake looked into building a small USDA-approved slaughterhouse onsite, but found it would cost about $150,000, ironically the same number as the maximum annual income of a farm categorized as small by the USDA, meaning that in order for a small farm to build a slaughterhouse it would need to spend at least an entire year’s worth of gross income. Drake’s slaughterhouse, she said, would need handicap-accessible restrooms, an inspector’s office with a phone line, and a paved parking lot. Dreher tells a very similar story of Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, who says the code required him to put in bathrooms for their employees.

I told them we were 50 feet away from two houses with bathrooms, and besides, we’re a family operation: We don’t have employees. It didn’t matter to them. Then they said we had to have twelve changing-lockers for employees.

These kinds of regulations are clearly designed for large operations which actually employ workers requiring these accommodations. But their blind and bureaucratic nature results in expenses small farmers cannot afford.

I live on a 36 acre low-bush blueberry farm. All year when blueberries are not in season, we sell them frozen to local stores. In order to meet regulations, we need to transport them in a freezer unit, even when the thermal mass of the frozen blueberries is more than sufficient to keep them frozen for short periods of transportation. This rule and so many others like it assume that businesses are large enough to purchase extremely costly equipment, and regulate procedures instead of outcomes. The necessity in this example is that the blueberries stay frozen during transportation, but instead of dictating that they must remain below a certain temperature, they require that any vehicle transporting frozen foods must be equipped with a freezer with a thermometer which can be read from outside the vehicle, tight fitting doors to prevent air leakage, and space for air circulation around the load.

My family has goats, and would be interested in starting a goat dairy business if we could. But regulations dictate that we would need a new, separate septic system and wastewater treatment facility to dispose of our “milking center wastewater” safely in order to do this, even though we would produce a very low volume of wastewater, most of which we would feed to our chickens in the form of whey. The amount of money necessary to put in a septic tank, moreover, would not be covered by milk sales at our scale for years. This is another regulation necessary for any operation producing large volumes of wastewater, but irrelevant and harmful in other cases.

These huge taxpayer subsidies for large agriculture companies and factory farms and these blind blanket regulations which put needless obstacles in the face of small farmers tilt the playing field even further against the farms most valuable to the world and our society. Why are these policies still in place? One simple part of the answer ties this into a larger problem. The bigger farms have more money and more powerful advocacy groups in Congress, and lobbyists for industrial farming are hand in hand with the USDA. Until special interests have a smaller voice in our government, large farms will continue to get the legislature’s helping hand.

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I live at The Benson Place Blueberry Farm. I’m a student at Williams College studying cognitive science or something like that. satchlj.com tilde.zone/@satchlj

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Satya Johnson

I live at The Benson Place Blueberry Farm. I’m a student at Williams College studying cognitive science or something like that. satchlj.com tilde.zone/@satchlj