Pooling Ideas to Rescue Family Farms

New panel suggests easier access to loans, more-targeted research, growing specialty foods

In one possible future, Roger Grimes is a successful family farmer, nurturing mums in his greenhouse, selling peanut hulls to cat-litter makers, and tending a herd of goats. The cotton he raises on 670 acres in Nash County, N.C., would be grown with no chemicals - and fetch a premium price because of it.

In another future, Mr. Grimes sells off his land and goes to work for an agribusiness firm. His wife goes back to teaching, and his two boys head to college in search of a living that doesn't include the feeling of having rich Carolina earth pour through their fingers.

It's a crossroads that family farmers have faced increasingly over the past two decades. Either they change the way they've been doing business for generations or they change their occupations.

Now, an unprecedented coalition of farmers, academicians, and public officials has been gathered by the US Department of Agriculture to recommend changes to public policy that would aid family farms and to publicize ways that small farmers themselves are figuring out how to compete in an economy increasingly dominated by huge corporations. The results of the National Commission on Small Farms are expected next month.

"If this is done right, this could be one of the most important steps for family farms in my lifetime," says Chuck Hassebrook, director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Neb., an organization that has studied small-farm issues for 20 years.

While the oil crisis of the late 1970s marked one of the worst periods for the family farm, in some ways today's challenges are almost as daunting, experts say. Prices are less fixed since Congress partially dismantled the farm-subsidy system. Land is harder to come by with the spread of suburbs. And a growing concentration of food vendors hurts farmers: Less competition among those who buy from farmers means small producers wield less bargaining power.

Slow decline

The numbers clearly show small farmers have been losing ground: There were 6.8 million farms in 1935; there are 2 million today.

And less than a third of profit-making farms - many of which are big commercial operations - own 70 percent of farmed land and grow most of the nation's agricultural products.

Commission members say this trend can be reversed by teaching farmers a new way to manage and revamping policy. Their recommendations include:

* New research. Commission members say agricultural research has long focused on large-scale farming. As a result, it has favored capital-intensive farming rather than seeking inexpensive methods to help small farmers.

Publicly funded research, for instance, has enabled the mass-production of hogs - a controversial practice. Yet a new development called "hoop houses," a system for low-cost hog raising that could be used by small farmers, was piloted in Canada and has received little notice here, Dr. Hassebrook says.

* Specialty markets. For small farmers to succeed, they can't compete directly with megafarms, members say. They must create specialty niches. For example, iceberg lettuce is the biggest seller, but sales of leaf lettuces such as romaine are growing. Small farmers need to take advantage of their flexibility to respond to such trends.

"As small-scale farmers find these products, they will be able to earn a better return on their investments. That will allow them to stay on their land," says Desmond Jolly, director of the Small Farm Center at the University of California at Davis, and vice chairman of the commission.

Indeed, specialty markets are a farming success story, slowing the decline of small farms, and even encouraging some to take up tilling the soil.

* Better access to credit. If small farms are to be flexible, they need money for start-up costs of new ventures, commission members say. Lenders often refuse money to small farmers, they say.

Key to success: flexibility

The question for many is: Can farmers make these wholesale changes? Roger Grimes and his father, Johnny, answer that most small farms still in business are already headed down this path.

Johnny's father originally bought 110 acres. Roger now farms about 2,000 acres, some purchased and some rented.

Computer spreadsheets are new, too. Roger's wife, Nell, converted her den into an office two years ago and uses a PC to track the farm's expenses and earnings.

Roger is somewhat reluctant to change. When it was suggested he grow mums in his greenhouse, he was concerned that growing anything in there beside seedlings of tobacco - his most lucrative crop - could cause disease.

He has tried to diversify. He looked into planting sweet potatoes - a growing market - but start-up costs would be too high. He also considered hogs, but his land can't absorb waste fast enough to meet state standards.

But the Grimeses say they'll do what they can to preserve their farm. "Being out in the open and having two boys that love it, we do a lot of things together. It's just a good life," Mrs. Grimes says. "Here, you've got control over what you do. The harder you work, the greater your rewards."

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