Sustaining the Family Farm at the Rural Urban Interface: Farm Succession Processes of Alternative Food and Agricultural Enterprises and Traditional Commodity Farmers.
Family farming has historically been reproduced through a complex process of farm succession. This process of intergenerational transfer of the farming occupation and farmland from parents to children is becoming more tenuous as an increasing number of farmers lack a farming heir. The absence of an heir may be especially problematic at the rural-urban interface (RUI), where farmland is already at risk of being developed for non-farm purposes. While activists and academics have touted a shift into urban oriented alternative food and agricultural enterprises (AFAEs) as a strategy for preserving farmland and farming at the RUI, a longer-term challenge to the viability of this adaptation may be the success of the succession process. The failure of AFEAs to persist across generations may result in these enterprises simply being transitional forms of farming before conversion to urban uses.
To understand the processes of succession at the RUI,face-to-face interviews and 2 focus groups with traditional commodity and AFAE farm families were conducted in 2007. Data gathered from these interviews was used to generate profiles of: how farm succession occurs, identifying how entry into farming occurred, the working relationships between generations, the decision-making process involved in choosing an heir(s), gender roles, how management responsibilities and land ownership are transferred, and the role of local context (local economy, land prices, development pressures etc) in shaping decision making.
A pressing issue facing Ohio and U.S. agriculture is the question of who will be the next generation of farmers. In recent years, the popular press, government reports, and academic papers have documented an aging farm population, a lack of succession planning, and the existence of fewer heirs choosing farming as an occupation. The absence of a farm succession plan or an identified heir may threaten the future of family farming and the rural communities that depend on them. At the rural-urban interface (RUI), an area distinguished by a high population growth and development pressure with varying rates of farmland being converted to non-farm purposes; a failure of the succession process can also impact whether farmland remains available for agricultural use.
At the RUI, farmers have been encouraged to transition from traditional commodity production (corn, beans, dairy etc.) to Alternative Food and Agriculture Enterprises (AFAE) focused on direct marketing, agri-tourism and value added production geared toward new urban clientele as a strategy for saving the family farm by increasing farm profitability. The goal of this research is to comprehend how the processes of succession contributes to the persistence of agriculture at the RUI
To understand the processes of succession at the RUI, the lead researcher conducted 24 face-to-face interviews and 2 focus groups with traditional commodity and AFAE farm families. Participants were also asked to fill out a short survey at the end of each interview. Data gathered from these interviews was used to generate profiles of: how farm succession occurs, identifying how entry into farming occurred, the working relationships between generations, the decision-making process involved in choosing an heir(s), gender roles, how management responsibilities and land ownership are transferred, and the role of local context (local economy, land prices, development pressures etc) in shaping decision making.
Interviews revealed there were actually three types of farms at the RUI: traditional commodity, AFAE’s and “Mixed” type farms. The “Mixed” type farms are a hybrid between the two other types; they utilize both AFAE direct marketing approaches and traditional commodity crops as a strategy for persistence. Data analysis revealed there were little demographic differences between traditional commodity and AFAE farmers. Both had the same levels of education, were around the same age, and all were white. Both types of farms had similar median acres, yet the commodity farms drew the most income from their farming activities. Family labor, particularly children working on the farm was reported more often on commodity farms, while AFAE farms were more likely to employ hired labor (especially at peak harvest seasons), most likely a function of the more intensive marketing and production systems characterizing these farms.
Both traditional commodity, “Mixed” and AFAE farms fell into one of two distinct categories, those who could identify an heir and those that could not. The farms that could not identify an heir fell into two groups:
1) those that opted to put their land into preservation through some sort of land trust, and;
2) farms that were clearly in a state of decline and disinvestment, making no improvements to existing infrastructure and entering a state of winding down.
Among the farms that could identify an heir, four different farm organization patterns were observed. Since land is a very limited input at the RUI, some farms (predominantly AFAE’s) were going through a process of intensification. These intensifiers were increasing production of higher value crops (such as nursery crops) in order to support more family members on the same piece of land. This group was actively investing in new equipment and buildings.
A second pattern emerged among AFAE’s and “Mixed” type farms, where families were stacking their talents within the same business. Thus some family members were in charge of field crops, others were in charge of fruit and vegetable crops, while yet others turned the harvest into value added products (jams, pie, etc) and were in charge of direct marketing these goods. This division of labor often split across generations, with older family members responsible for production and younger members in charge of marketing. This observation raises a question about the long term trajectory of farming activities among such enterprises when parents eventually retire.
The third pattern observed were those families that were able to use a set amount of land to stack complimentary farm enterprises, and build off each other’s production systems and provide for independent yet complimentary income streams. This strategy (most often observed in grass based animal production systems) allowed for more family members to be a part of the farm enterprise without the need to acquire more land.
The fourth and final pattern observed occurred most frequently among traditional commodity farmers. These farmers chose a strategy of expansion, whereby they increased their acreage (through rent or purchase) and thereby increased the volume they could produce and sell into bulk commodity markets.
Traditionally, when farmers wanted to expand or bring children into an operation they were able to purchase more land. At the RUI land is a scarce and expensive resource, making the inheritance process a more complex and uncertain process. This research found that very few farmers were choosing a strategy of pure land expansion. The majority of farms were intensifying through an already established commodity mix (growing higher value crops), or expanding by stacking enterprises (of varying size and intensity) to allow more family members to earn a living from the farm. This research raises important questions about the continuity of production among AFAE and “Mixed” type farms where the older generation are the primary ‘producers’ and the younger generations are the primary ‘marketers.’ Further study is required to fully understand the implications of such patterns. This research raises some interesting questions that can be applied to studying local food system development and new farmer programs in Ohio.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Products of this research will be reported at local and professional meetings. Reports, presentations and fact sheets will be developed for Extension, planners, and other appropriate governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Findings will also aid agencies concerned with agricultural economic development initiatives by providing insights into strategies that will create long term rather then short term working agricultural landscapes.
2007 Inwood, S.M., J.S. Sharp, and D.B. Jackson-Smith. “Sustaining the Family Farm at the Rural Urban Interface: Farm Succession Processes of Alternative Food and Agricultural Enterprises and Traditional Commodity Farmers.” Rural Sociological Society Annual Meeting. Santa Clara, California.
Associate Professor, Rural Sociology Program
Ohio State University
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