The Small Farmer and Social Issues
Ntam Baharanyi & Robert Zabawa
To introduce this session on Social issues, some of the major issues currently facing the small farm sector will be highlighted. The presenters in this session represent institutions and organizations that are charged with assisting the small farmer. The question that rises, however, is whether the small-scale producer should receive special attention, given his or her overall participation in production agriculture. This discussion will, therefore, focus on the issue of status (production, social, political), assistance (availability, accessibility, equity, and social capital), context (regional, cultural, type) and need, and programs for the small farmer.
Three areas can help in defining the status of the small farm operator and highlight the importance of the small farm sector to rural America.
Overall, it can be argued that the production capacity of the small farm sector is very low. For example, farms with annual sales of $100,000 and over account for less than 15 percent of the farm population and over three-quarters of the total farm sales. At the same time, farms with less than $50,000 in sales account for over three-quarters of the farm population, but less than 12 percent of the sales. But these are aggregate numbers. At the regional and local levels, small farms are major suppliers of produce to local farmers' markets and roadside stands. These farmers are also increasing their share of produce sold at local grocery stores.
Small farmers make up a significant portion of the rural population employed in the off-farm workforce as well as recipients of local government services.
Given the number of small farms versus large farms, this population makes up a significant constituency from the local to the national levels.
Based on their unique production characteristics, social standing and potential for political power, the question arises concerning programs targeted for the small-scale producer in general and the limited resource and socially disadvantaged farmer in particular. Four questions concerning these issues are:
Are there programs available that target the specific needs of the small farmer?
Are those programs that target the small farmer accessible?
Are small farm programs funded and delivered in an equitable manner given the population and needs of the small-scale producer?
Do local farmers have the necessary social capital that allows them access to available programs and other related resources?
Before these questions are answered, however, the related issues of context and need of the small farm sector must be addressed. For example:
Small farmers in different regions of the country (e.g., the South, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, etc.) have different potentials and face different constraints.
Farmers with different cultural background (e.g., race, ethnic group, gender, and age) have different goals and objectives, and face different problems.
Not all small farms are alike even when taking into consideration sales and acreage (e.g., full-time, part-time, limited resource).
To use a specific example, there is a critical need for assistance targeting the minority farmer in general and the Black farmer in particular. Since experiencing a peak in both numbers and acreage at the beginning of this century, the Black farmer has seen a steady decline of over 99 percent in both of these areas. Even after the 1982 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights highlighting this decline, this situation continues, in some counties at a rate of over 50% per agricultural census.
Given this context and state of need, the questions, availability, accessibility,equity, and social capital can be addressed. In general, there have been very few programs available that specifically target the small farmer. Those programs that are available have often been inacce-ssible. And finally, those programs that have been accessible have traditionally been underfunded and/or of short term measures.
Returning to the example of the minority and the Black farmer, until recently, there was no program that focused on their specific needs, despite their obvious decline and given the context-based issues of region, culture and type mentioned earlier. Based, in part, on the Civil Rights Commission Report, one program that has developed is the USDA 2501 Small Farmer Outreach Training and Technical Assistance Projects, currently administered through the 1890 Land-Grant Institutions, Tuskegee Uni-versity, and regional non-governmental organizations such as the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation. These programs are charged with assisting limited resource minority and socially disadvantaged farmers in the areas of production, recordkeeping and marketing. Over the life of this program, millions of dollars in loans have been approved, for established farmers to improve their operations and for new farmers to start out, who previously were denied access to federal program support.
Other programs that may assist the small farmer on a case-by-case basis include the Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR) administered through various federal agencies including the USDA and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education/Agriculture in Concert with the Environment Program (SARE/ACE) administered by the USDA and EPA. However, these programs are grant-based, not farm type specific, and not long-term assistance programs.
Even with these newly created programs, it is important that farmers have the necessary social capital to provide them access to the programs. That is, farmers need to be a part of that network found at the local community level whereby they are informed of programs, projects and activities specific to their needs and farming goals. The recent Empowerment Zone/Enterprise Community process
based on community level planning and decision making is one effort in this direction.
There are social issues for small farmers and about small farmers. These issues extend beyond the farm gate to the community and enter into the social and political arenas. That the needs specific to the small farmer, the limited resource farmer, and the minority and socially disadvantaged farmer are being recognized is a start; but even with the creation of small farm-specific assistance, including the 2501 program, this assistance is only temporary. For example, the 2501 projects in the participating states are funded based on an annual budget review process. That is, state project personnel and the farm clientele they assist do not know how long the program will continue. In this last year alone, the 2501 program was reauthorized, it was dropped, it was reauthorized with no funding, and finally reauthorized with funding. A commitment to these groups needs to be extended beyond an annual program budget item to a permanent item in the USDA budget. Until then, the collaborative efforts of the 1890s and Tuskegee University and community-based organizations are crucial for the support of and program assistance to the small farmer.
Return to Table of Contents
Return to Title Page