Are heritage crops and animals saving family farms?

Farming in the United States is an extremely tough and challenging enterprise, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Lots can go wrong — a single bad season can bring a farm to its knees, and the expenses involved in operating a farm are high, including not just economic costs for goods and supplies, but also the sheer amount of labour involved. It’s perhaps not surprising that industrial agriculture has eaten much of the country’s farming industries, as consolidated farms can produce high volumes of crops and livestock, mitigate risk, and increase profitability via the means of standardization. For a time, it looked like family farms might disappear altogether, with the exception of a few small pockets of holdouts.

Something strange is happening, though. Family farms appear to be on the rebound, at least in some areas, and many are explicitly attracting young farmers, which is critically important, because the death of older generations has been a historic problem, with many kids unwilling to pick up the pitchforks, deciding instead to sell farms to developers. Whether young farmers are taking on their own family farms or founding new ones, they’re creating careers for themselves and giving this ancient tradition a new lease on life.

A number of factors appear to be contributing to the return of the family farm, but the core answer may lie in the fact that many of these farms are specializing in raising rare, heirloom crops and livestock, a move which offers incalculable benefits to society and culture. Over the last 100 years, we’ve lost untold varietals of crops and animals to factory farming, which prizes consistency and high yields over diversity and flavour. If it’s smaller, more fragile, fussier, or in any way more demanding than something else on the market, you won’t find it on a commercial farm, even if that means a sacrifice of quality, flavour, and even nutritional value in some cases.

Family farms are rejecting that notion. They’re embracing the idea that in the farming industry, oddly enough, the best way to save something is to eat it. Heirloom varieties rely on human demand, because if no one’s raising them, they die off. And this isn’t just about having more apples to choose from at the grocery store, farm stand, or market. Maintaining genetic diversity in agriculture is important because if commercially-popular cultivars fail, these heirlooms could provide valuable genes to revive them — as for example in the case of bananas, with the popular Cavendish starting to falter as it becomes susceptible to disease, while heirlooms can be crossbred to breed a more robust, hardy banana. Maintaining a living library of genetic diversity improves outcomes for everyone.

Some of their heirlooms are more tricky to raise. Many don’t travel well, especially on the scale that family farms grow. That means they rarely travel far, which is often part of the point — some farmers focus on producing for their local communities, remaining within a foodshed, and promoting a small economy. If you want rare cultivars only being produced on one or two farms, you’ll have to go there, encountering your food firsthand and meeting the farmer, creating a connection that restores some of the severed ties between people and food in the US.

These farms are also explicitly taking advantage of the rise of the foodie in the US and the demand for exotic, special, unusual crops and livestock for the plate. In fine dining, it’s more and more common to see chefs focusing on locally produced food, specifically sourcing foods people can’t get at any other establishment, and working directly with farmers in a collaborative relationship. Whether it’s labeled as ‘farm to table’ or some other buzzword, the net effect is that farmers develop partnerships which create stability in the market, making their endeavors more viable. Having regular contracts directly with end consumers also means that farmers stand to make a better profit, as they don’t lose to distributors — and that’s good news in an industry where profit margins are so low that even small losses can be devastating for the future of a farm.

Socially, family farms have always been romanticised in the US, but now, they’re a topic of widespread cultural engagement and awareness thanks to growing conversations about our food system. Many people are recognising that there are significant issues within the food system, surrounding problems like affordability, diversity, accessibility, and other barriers to accessing food. Some of these conversations can take on a damaging note, such as the healthism pervading a lot of discussions about access to fresh, ‘healthy’ food, but others consciously step out of traditional paradigms and take on the notion that food should make people happy, and that food creates a sense of community and togetherness, acting not just as a means to an end.

To be competitive in the end, though, family farms need to make themselves stand out, and that’s where they’re succeeding with heirlooms. Anyone can produce common varietals, but massive agricultural establishments can grow them at low cost, highly efficiently. They can afford to take losses, or just let crops rot in the fields and accept the insurance if they can’t get a good price. Small farmers can’t accept those risks. That means turning to a business model that offers more stability, and that’s what heirlooms provide: A clear, stable future by filling a niche in the market that’s only going to grow.

Family farms aren’t as romantic as people like to cast them, but they’re also far from dead.

Image: Feathered Bundle of Love, Dave Goehring, Flickr