Smaller Farms: Down, But Not Out

Small and midsize farms are decreasing in number, but not importance. One family farmer makes the case and practices what he preaches.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole

“There’s just one way in and one way out,” says Gary Ellis about Sweetens Cove, where his family has owned land for 100-plus years. “Even today, it’s still kind of remote down there. It’s a dead end,” he continues, with a tone that’s at once familiar and ominous.

Sweetens or “Swedens” Cove, a 7-plus-mile geographic formation just west of South Pittsburg, Tenn., is walled in on three sides and nearly a fourth by the southern Appalachian Mountains. The region, which also includes corners of Alabama and Georgia, is known for hidden hollers, coves and general inaccessibility, as well as the fierce self-reliance of its inhabitants. Whether the latter were that way before they got here or realized they’d find their own dead end if they didn’t adapt is an oft-debated topic among academics and armchair historians.

For the locals, though, it’s been more about survival via a grit-your-teeth independence similar to that in many rural areas of North America, especially among farmers. Yet, it’s a spirit threatened by new factors that may undo what remote terrain like that in the Appalachians and elsewhere, harsh climates, and great recessions and depressions haven’t.

“The economics of the whole modern situation don’t really allow you to support yourself, strictly from a family farm,” says Ellis, who raises about 50 head of cattle and some 500 bales of hay on about 200 acres of Sweetens Cove farmland, pasture and wooded mountainside. But in an ironic turn that’s become the norm these days, it’s his “day job” as an electrical engineer that supports his work on the farm.

“We have gotten to where it’s really hard to support your family and maintain the farm … in terms of how much you can produce,” says Ellis. “So I’ve had to work full-time in order to maintain everything, including a standard of living.” Ellis’ wife, Melissa, also works off the farm as a nurse, and together they have two children from previous marriages.

Ellis says he could sell the land “and make a little money off it,” or rent it out to custom farmers, but enjoys the work and is passionate about keeping a working farm in the family. “The No. 1 thing I want to do is to maintain the land the way it is and pass it on to my children. I don’t want to see it going by the wayside or just turned over to the row-cropping guy because we can’t do the work that’s needed. So, I’m anxious to continue forward with the tradition of a small family farm here.”

Then he pauses and says, “It’s getting to be kind of an odd thing to farm your own land, when it comes to these small to midsize farms. It’s getting to be a rarity.”

Ellis' herd grazes pastures and wooded areas on his property.

Ellis’ herd grazes pastures and wooded areas on his property.

The latest census data from the U.S. and Canada backs up that assertion. In Canada, the number of farms earning less than $100,000 in gross receipts fell by about 12% from 2006 to 2011—that after a drop of 38% in the previous two decades. In the U.S., the actual number of farms in the 50- to 999-acre range fell by almost 56,000 from 2007 to 2012, a 4.7% decline.

One of the big reasons for the decline of such farms, says Jennifer Fahy of Farm Aid, an advocacy group, is margins. Even with record agricultural sales up 33%, from 2007 to 2012, “We had record expenses then too, up by 36%.”

Fahy says that kind of increase is easier for large farms to absorb because of economy of scale. “They have more leverage to negotiate things like their labor and inputs compared to smaller and midsize farms,” she says.

For many smaller and middling operations, selling directly to consumers or joining co-ops has helped reduce expenses and allowed them to better compete. Fahy mentions a case study Farm Aid did a few years ago. “We did a report on rebuilding the economy with family-farm-centered food systems, which were basically looking for direct markets in the local and regional economy.”

One group included in the report was Shepherd’s Grain, which markets flour milled from the wheat of 33 farmers in the Columbia Plateau Producers Cooperative and partners with Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). According to the report, the effort reduces costs, sets planting schedules and prices, and, says Fahy, “because … they’re selling to local bakeries and grocery stores a farmer-identified product, folks can go in and purchase flour and know exactly which farmer grew the grains.”

According to anecdotal evidence, the number of co-ops and direct-to-market entities, often referred to as value-based food chains, have increased in the past few years. Fred Kirschenmann, who is with Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the research group Agriculture of the Middle, backs up this assertion and says that groups like Shepherd’s Grain are not only proving to be economically viable, but are experiencing an influx of young farmers.

Ellis with daughter Autumn.

Ellis with daughter Autumn.

Ellis has yet to work with a co-op or sell direct to consumers. Instead, he sells to a nearby stockyard. He says there’s currently not an applicable co-op in his area, but direct sales is something “I could move into, but I’m currently too busy for the added attention it requires.”

In something of a catch-22, he doesn’t have the time because of his off-farm job, which allows him to keep the farm. According to Farm Aid, the average farm family has earned as much as 90% of its income via a source of employment other than their land.

The long days are, however, worth the effort for Ellis. “It’s extremely enjoyable and relaxing to leave a city job and come home and do things on the farm,” he says. Yet, it’s more than a hobby. It’s a business that provides a product, and small and midsize farms such as his offer additional capacity to feed the world.

“The interesting opportunity for more production is [farming] the small parcels of land that are not practical for the large guys to farm, or that they can’t acquire the use of for some reason. You may be able to visualize this thinking about us driving through the cove up to my farm,” he says of a narrow slice of arable land between wooded mountains.

“Parcels like these will never be incorporated into the big tracts,” Ellis continues. “So, unless the small guy farms them, the opportunity is lost and the land will go into forest or residential development. That is where the little guy … can really pick up the slack.”

Then, too, work on the farm—his family’s farm—is also a calling. “Well, I’ve just been raised with the mentality that with the inheritance of your land there comes responsibility to maintain that [land].” Ellis believes strongly it’s his job to “keep it and improve it as much as possible, and eventually pass it along to my children one day so they can do the same thing.”