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The Dartmouth
May 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Bring: Is There a Farm Problem?

The president's policies are not hurting small farmers.

If we want to understand the state of small family farming in this country, we need to look beyond partisan fault-finding and demeaning stereotypes of farmers and their operations. Contrary to the suggestions of Thomas Knight ’22 in his May 9 column for The Dartmouth, titled “Trump and the Family Farm,” there are no economic indications that President Trump’s actions are worsening the decline of small family farming in New Hampshire or elsewhere.

Let us get a few facts straight about small family farms, based on the 2012 USDA census of farmers. Family farms, of all sizes, constitute 88 percent of all U.S. farmland. Most large farms, including those which use factory farming processes, are still “family farms,” benefitting and owned by one family. 

Small family farms control 48 percent of farmland and only 20 percent of sales. Midsize and large family farms only controlled 20 percent of the farmland each. Large family farms generate 45 percent of all agriculture sales, a significant plurality.

Important to note is that only 16 percent of small family farm owners depended on the farm for the majority of their household income in 2012. The vast majority of “family farms” are owned by retirees or people with a primary occupation other than farming. Of the remaining small farmers, only a minority depended upon their farm income.

New Hampshire’s farms are 95 percent small family operations, and many owners of those may not depend on their farm income. They may still receive federal assistance, however.

Agricultural subsidies do not harm small farmers; if anything they have kept American agriculture viable for longer than it would have been otherwise. The fact that small family farms, including those of retirees and non-primary occupation, receive 44 percent of government agricultural subsidies while only making up 20 percent of agricultural sales suggests that subsidies benefit small family farms, not large farms, disproportionately. The President’s recent regulatory exemptions, which Knight criticizes in his column, are not limited to large-scale farmers, and the 2018 Farm Bill expanded a subsidy safety net that covers the owners of family farms and their extended families. 

That’s not the only benefit; the 2018 Farm Bill also made it easier for family farmers to choose the legal structure of ownership that works best for them. It is hard to argue factually that the 2018 Farm Bill, which enjoyed bipartisan support, harmed farmers in any detectable way.

Just because something benefits large farmers doesn’t mean it hurts small farmers. It’s more than possible that reform measures taken expressly to benefit the farming industry actually help that industry as whole and not just the richest segments.

We must acknowledge the threat posed to small family farms by the fundamental economic realities of the global free market, namely economies of scale and creative destruction. Those concepts explain the perceived decline in small farming relative to large-scale agriculture much more than recent tariffs do. Agricultural regulation and consolidation predate the birth of Donald Trump by decades. 

Tariffs are hurting American farmers, but they do not affect small farms disproportionately. As stated above, 80 percent of total agricultural sales come not from small farmers but rather from larger farms. There is substantial federal aid, as discussed, that prevents small farmers from declaring bankruptcy. New Hampshire’s farms, the vast majority of which have sales below $50,000 a year, are likely not too susceptible to the caprices of international trade policy or other macroeconomic trends.

We must avoid a privileged temptation to romanticize the hard labor of small American farmers and reduce it to a spectacle for tourists or a symbol of Americana, as Knight too often does in his article. Farmers are much more than two-dimensional personifications of “hard work, discipline and living off the land.” Farming, whether conducted in an “antique” New Hampshire barn or a Texas feedlot, is back-breaking work, especially for those whose primary occupation is farming. In terms of machinery and practices, the defining difference between many family-owned operations and large farms is not “rough-hewn fences” but total acreage and assets. 

Nevertheless, large-scale, “factory farm” agriculture, and its bad image, will never replace New Hampshire’s small farms. There’s no evidence to suggest that this transition might even be a possibility. According to the USDA, between 2012 to 2017, the average size of farms in New Hampshire decreased from 108 to 103 acres, while the number of farms under 10 acres increased by 128.

As farming in New England has declined over the decades, farms have not been replaced with polluting factory farms but with dense woods, like those that now envelop Hanover and Norwich. New England was once so deforested for pasture and farmland that in the mid-1800s, the entire region only had a forest cover of 30-40 percent. Now thick woods or forest cover 80 percent of New England’s states. If New Hampshire’s small family farms do fade — and they won’t under the current administration’s policies — they shall not be supplanted by mechanized slaughterhouses but by forests that truly ring out “with the sounds and colors of spring.”

Bring is chairman of the Dartmouth College Republicans.

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