Friday, February 1, 2013

Family, business and American agriculture

In a recent speech, Bernie Erven emphasized the importance of hiring good workers, especially in the struggling farm industry. A central part of the movement to modern hiring practices focused on a movement away from traditional familial hiring practices. NPR's blog The Salt covered the speech and the potential implications of moving away from hiring from within families. In the article, Jessica Stoller-Conrad noted that the argument to hire in a more "professional" way would likely be a tough sell to most farmers in America.

With non-family farms making up only 2% of the farms in America, the movement away from employing family members would present a drastic demographic shift. While the designation of family farm does not necessarily mean that all employees of the farm would be family members, the shift away from predominately hiring family members could present a dramatic departure from family farm traditions. The USDA defines a family farm as having a substantial amount of labor provided by the family.

Erven spoke directly to the employment of family members, noting that it is essential to still interview family members when hiring them to work on family farms. While interviewing family members prior to hiring may result in more qualified people being hired, a shift away from having a substantial amount of labor be performed by family may result in the farm failing to meet USDA's definition of a family farm. Beyond the legal requirements and implications on farm loan programs, the decreased availability of jobs may end up encouraging young members of rural communities to migrate to urban areas to find jobs.

From a purely economic lens, Erven's argument likely has merit. Hiring skilled farmworkers as opposed to under-qualified family members may appear to economists as the most sound economic choice. While the Farm Bill has been extended for another year, the delay in passing the House of Representatives may indicate an uncertain future for farm subsidies. The introduction of hiring practices that are focused on qualifications instead of familial connections may appeal to those who are focused on the American farm as an economic driver. But can the farms of rural America be reduced to solely economic entities?

A conversation concerning the current or ideal role of farms in American society is perhaps more appropriate in a longer post. However, attempts by the Federal Government around family and agriculture could frame the discussion in interesting ways.

In June of 2011, U.S Fish & Wildlife Services hosted public meetings to discuss the purchasing of conservation easements in California's Central Valley. The project being called the California Foothills Legacy Area and is being marketed as a way for ranching families to stay on their land while protecting the land for wildlife. Many private property rights advocate groups and the California Cattleman's Association came out in opposition of the project. Strong opposition has also been voiced over the past year by private citizens who described the project as the "federal government's greedy hand."

It is interesting to think about the California Foothills Legacy Area's presentation of family as a central reason for the project. The focus on family as an integral aspect of American rangeland echoes the centrality of family in American farmlands. Despite the current centrality of the identity of family in farms and rangeland, shifting demographics and migration is changing the make-up of rural communities. Would a shift away from a central identity of family change the place of farms and ranges in American culture?


Scrampbell said...

It would seem to me that Ervin is simply being a realist by encouraging farmers to hire qualified and interested employees from outside of the family. I would be curious about what percentage of the individuals who will be inheriting these family farms envision themselves as future farmers. The notion that our farmers' children won't continue their agrarian tradition is a sad, but in the current economic climate what might we be asking them to give up to pursue farming? The ability to pay off student loans? stable income? retirement funds? This post raises a lot of questions regarding competing interests and current economic trends while pushing us to re-examine the economic viability of farming as a family supporting enterprise.

houhai said...
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Pearl Kan said...

I also wonder how the family farm model operates in the context of big agro-business and monocrop culture. Just as a young person it seems that there is a movement percolating within people of our generation where sustainable farming is an idea and ideal that lures many people our age. Envisioning a future of farming that embraces and promotes small scale production rooted in the local seems like one way to resist and combat the corporate agrobusiness model along with all of its deleterious effects.