The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that 97% of all crop and ranch lands in the US are family farms. It seems the family farm is still a mainstay of American agriculture and a viable mode of farming in the developed world. But, it turns out, this is only true in the same way that the Walton’s thriving family business signals that the family-owned grocery is alive and well at your local Walmart.

Nic Redig is a ‘new’ third-generation farmer. For several months now, he has been working on his family’s farm in Minnesota. He has reluctantly moved back in with his father and stepmother in the southern part of the state, working to pay off student loans from a Masters degree. During harvest and planting, the hours are long, but the pay is good.

At 30 years old, Nic is tall and trim, with a full beard, a baseball cap and a wide smile as he greets me. Nic tells me his father and stepmother, with two other families and their land, are actually now part-owners of a single farming operation. One of the families owns 51% of the land, and that family manages the farm’s operations in a strictly top-down fashion.

Together, these families manage over 25,000 acres that reach from southern Minnesota all the way to the Canadian border. This is equivalent to managing a farm the size of Paris, spread out over an area the size of the UK.

Is this the family farm we hold in our imagination when we stroll through our weekly farmers’ market or choose a locally-sourced product in the grocery store? Probably not. You might be thinking at this point that I have led you astray, that this is not a family farm at all.

However, according to the USDA, a family farm is one in which “the principal operator, and people related to the operator by blood or marriage, own more than 50% of the farm business.” So, officially, Nic works for a family farm – a family farm, the size of the City of Light.

This compels us to ask, what do we even mean by ‘family farm’?

More than semantics, misleading labels and vague definitions have undermined environmental policy goals so often they have been given a name: ‘greenwash‘. Consider the case of ‘organic’ dairy farms. Seeing such a label on a milk carton evokes images of cows roaming rolling hills, grazing freely and resting in the shade of an oak tree. But until the pasture rule of 2010, a certified organic dairy farmer in the US could keep her cows packed into indoor pens, never setting hoof onto the green pastures of our imagination, and still charging a premium for feel-good dairy products.

In the same way, the USDA ‘family farm’ definition suggests to the consumer a particular image of the farming operation whether or not those farms have strayed from the ideal. For Nic, mega-family farms like the one he works on are all about maximising profit. “They are thinking almost exclusively about efficiency, if you screw up the land… to boost the production, there are fewer consequences. They can cut their losses in a way that small farms can’t.” He says he thinks the family farms I am after have a different ethos. “Family farms should be operated in the context of a community and guided by a value in the health of the land, of individuals, and communities.”

Indeed, Ted Clark of the Northeastern University Center for Family Businesses says family businesses bring value to communities. “[Family businesses] invest for the long haul, offer long-term employment, and contribute to their communities.” But they are not without their challenges.

In a recent piece on the Death of the Family Farm, Adam Azevedo laments the shortcomings of the family farm. The article details the breakdown of his relationship with his father along with the family business, a 600-cow organic dairy farm in California’s Central Valley. With his farm on the brink of closure, Azevedo says, “the thing with a family farm is you can’t fire people or get the best guys to work for you. Family farms are only great if you have the farm paid for and you’re the one in charge.”

Azevedo’s criteria for greatness in family farms will be increasingly difficult to achieve as operations like the one Nic works for are increasingly the norm, rather than the exception. The current swelling of large-scale family farms is, of course, part of an historical trend driven by government funding, insurance programmes and demographic shifts in the farmer population.

Farm sizes have been on the rise since the agricultural policies of the New Deal era sought to protect farmers from the volatility of the market through government subsidies. In stabilising prices and reducing financial risk for farmers, however, these subsidies also led lenders to give more freely, allowing some farmers to invest more heavily in land and advancing technologies.

Crop insurance programmes have also reduced financial risks and encouraged lending. Now covering 80% of planted acreage of corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat, insured crops have contributed to more recent spikes in farm consolidation and mono-crop farming. In fact, the number of farms in the US with more than 10,000 acres has nearly tripled between 2001 and 2011 from about 400 to over 1,100, according to the USDA.

These trends show no signs of slowing down. David Wilmar, an agricultural economist at Purdue University argues that farm consolidation will occur at ever more rapid rates as the average age of farmers continues to increase. Today, more than 30% of US farmers are over the age of 65. And while inheritance has historically been the most common way to acquire a farm in the US, the rate of independent purchases of farmland is overtaking generational succession.

Nic pointed to evidence of this around his hometown of Wells, Minnesota where the bulk of the family’s cropland is located. “When somebody dies, that acreage is passed on to a son or siblings, and if they don’t have a connection to it, they’re typically going to sell that land… and they’re going to sell it to the highest bidder.”

Because purchasing cropland is a capital-intensive and risky endeavour, these independent purchases by farmers are more likely to originate from those who can absorb the potential risk of under-productive land. Wilmar predicts that trends in demographic make-up and government subsidies will result in an accelerated accumulation of land by fewer and fewer farmers.

This means that increasingly, the farmland that stays in production will not be a matter of family legacy on the land, but rather who has access to capital to purchase or rent land.

In fact, a report from the National Young Farmers Coalition shows the biggest hurdle to new small-scale farming is the steep prices set on land. These prices are even more inflated near urban areas where land becomes valued for its potential for development.

The Coalition is working to protect farmland and bring down the cost to farmers through both traditional and innovative approaches to conservation easements. A conservation easement is a legal agreement in which a land trust purchases the development rights of the land, restricting housing and commercial real estate. The remaining cost of the land is then based only on its agricultural productivity, putting land within reach for far more farmers. The Coalition has proposed new agreements with positive language for requiring agricultural production, and even requiring the land be sold to another farmer.

So long as capital is most easily available to family farms who already have tens of thousands of acres to leverage in expanding their empire, the trend of consolidating farmland into fewer and fewer families will grow. More mega family farms may mean more ability to withstand the financial blows of practices that maximise profits in the short-term but that threaten the long-term health of the soil. It may mean more farmers who never set foot in the communities adjacent to their widespread cropland, communities that are nevertheless impacted by decisions made about that land. An important question to follow, then, is can large-scale family farms be managed in a way that maintains the values of small-scale family farms, or are we trading pastures for pens under the green-washed label of the family farm?

Photograph: USDA

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