Family farming has long been an important contributor to community and economic vitality in rural America. But the opportunities in conventional family farming are shrinking. Young Americans who want to start 21st century family farms are increasingly looking to opportunities in niche and specialty markets.
A new Union of Concerned Scientists report lends support to that approach. It found that Minnesota and Vermont organic dairy farms contributed more to employment, income, and gross state product per dollar value of production than conventional dairies. Organic farms were also more profitable than conventional farms. The net farm revenue per cow of organic farms exceeded that of conventional farms of a similar size in Minnesota. In Vermont, it exceeded that of both big and small conventional farms.
Organic milk production is defying the trend toward bigger and fewer farms. The number of cows per organic farm actually decreased in recent years to an average of 63 in Vermont and 80 in Minnesota. This is roughly half the size of conventional dairies. The drop in size followed tightening of USDA organic standards requiring access to pasture throughout the grazing season.
Specialty markets like organic offer the opportunity to produce higher value products by substituting skilled labor and management for capital. They provide a strategy to squeeze more earnings out of each cow, each acre, and each dollar. That’s a good fit for beginning farmers, who generally have more management and skills than cows, acres, or dollars.
It’s also a good fit for small farms. The Union of Concerned Scientists report profiles farms that have used organic markets to sustain their small operations, including the 160 acre, 90 cow Full Circle Farm of Seymour, Wisconsin. The farm is operated by long-time Center for Rural Affairs supporters Rick and Valerie Adamski. They are now helping the next generation get started on their farm through a partnership with 27-year-old beginning farmer Andy Jaworski. He and the Adamskis have split inputs, labor, and revenue through a milk-share agreement.
Organic farming isn’t the solution for every family farm or rural community. But small entrepreneurship – local community members seeking new ways to create 21st century opportunities – is a big part of the solution for all of rural America. Our communities no longer have Main Streets teaming with retail businesses serving small farms on every section selling commodities.
To thrive, we must search out the new opportunities. We must support our new entrepreneurs who find those opportunities, even if they do things a little differently. And we must participate in and shape change so we can hang onto things that matter – strong communities, good neighbors, and genuine economic opportunity for rural people.
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