small farms, small organic farms
Mark Duncan/AP

Small Farms Surge as Demand for Local Food Changes Agriculture Industry

February 10, 2009 12:24 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
The latest farm census report shows an increase in the number of small organic farms, many supplemented by off-farm income, though mid-sized farms are struggling.

The Small-Farm Trend

More Americans demand that their food is grown locally and organically, and with that trend, the number of small farms in the United States has increased, according to the Agriculture Department’s latest census.

The increase in small farms, coupled with the success of a few very large farms, has made it more difficult for medium-sized farms to survive. Furthermore, some established small farms that have long used organic growing methods have struggled with the costs and paperwork required by new federal organic standards. 

In Indiana, the number of small farms increased by almost 80 percent from 2002–2007. Greg Preston, director of the Indiana Agricultural Statistics Service, told the Indy Star, “We are getting a lot of newer farmers coming in that are smaller—going into direct marketing, specialty products, organics, locally grown, this type of stuff.”

But the census also revealed that a few “very large farms” are also thriving, according to the publication Farm and Dairy, leaving behind “agriculture’s disappearing middle.” The census results are expected to impact U.S. agricultural legislation this year.

The New York Times discussed policy decisions with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. He told the Times he wants to create innovative off-farm job opportunities, such as involvement with “government nutrition programs” for farmers that need extra income. Between 2002 and 2007, nearly 75 percent of U.S. agriculture was produced by just 5 percent of farms, forcing less profitable small and mid-sized farmers to supplement their agricultural income with other work. In 2007, 65 percent of farmers held off-farm jobs.
Could the federal organic program also be changed? In April 2007, USA Today reported that some well-established small farmers had resorted to alternative organic certifications, such as the Certified Naturally Grown program, because federal standards are too complicated and expensive to maintain. Such programs rely on “peer review” with inspections performed by other farmers, a practice that could be more appealing to consumers looking for quality products.

Related Topic: The heightened appeal of gardening

Reference: Organic food guide

FindingDulcinea’s Web Guide to Organic Food includes Web sites that explain the basics of organic products, information on buying and growing organic food, getting involved in food activism, and organic food news.

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