Traditional family farms headed for change

Denise Watt

Denise Watt

When Jared Knock was deciding where to go to college, he looked into liberal arts at St. John’s (Annapolis, Maryland), anthropology at Princeton and history at Harvard.

These choices resulted in a few phone calls and letters, he said. But he knew animal science at SDSU would be his final decision.

“I wanted to be close to home and carry on a legacy (of agriculture) that was started generations ago by my ancestors,” he said. “I have always wanted to go back and farm. The only doubt I ever had was not ‘if I wanted to,’ but ‘if I could.'”

Why would a young man, who since his childhood has wanted to carry on his family’s farming tradition, doubt his own future?

Around the time when most of today’s college students were just starting kindergarten, the farm crisis of the 1980s changed the dynamics of agriculture-including the notion of corporate farming.

As small family farms sold out during the years following the farm crisis, corporations increased their operations and influence.

The loss of small family farms is not entirely a new issue, however.

“In the 1930’s, the vast majority of farms that were lost were less than 100 acres,” said Meredith Redlin, associate professor of rural sociology at SDSU.

Now, today’s farmers face a new set of challenges, not only from Mother Nature as in the ’30s, but also from a changing perception about agriculture.

Kelly Bruns, professor of animal science, explained that people’s perceptions of agriculture come from their own personal experiences.

“More urban people are migrating to rural areas,” he said.

With the population shift to rural areas, large-scale farming has become a nation-wide issue. However, the issue may carry increased significance in the Midwest versus in the corporate culture of California, Redlin said.

“We’re historically a family-farm-based economy,” she said.

That tradition continues into today’s generation. According to a survey taken of the Animal Science 101 class this fall, 100 percent of students said they would let an existing family farm expand.

What is the distinction between a family farm and a corporate farm? According to Knock, the difference is not clear-cut. He said the ideals that people have of a family farm include humane animal treatment, conservation practices, helping out neighbors and having a pride in what they produce. These practices are not specifically limited to family farms, but are also practiced by corporations.

According to Bruns, opportunities to work for larger operations exist as an option for today’s students. He said with the age of the average farmer being between 60 and 70 years old, there lies an opportunity for a college graduate to build his or her own operation.

Knock said he understands the situation.

“To make it in any business, you have to be the least-cost producer, or provide a product that meets specific needs,” he said.

Redlin agrees that opportunities exist. She described several options for smaller-scale farms, including markets for organic products and specialty livestock, other niche markets, and the option for diversified operations, which have been successful in Australia.

“Those opportunities are growing for people,” she said.

So the question remains to be answered-can a young, college graduate from a small family farm return to make a successful living in a volatile agricultural economy?

“I’ll sure try,” Knock said.