Small-scale Farming and Ranching

Promotion of small-scale farming and ranching is not what you’d expect to hear from a Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School:

Ultimately, small will save us—that is, if we commit ourselves to it. We can only hope to transform our current fossil-fuel-based economy into a more sustainable system if we move collectively to small, sustainable, local energy sources (p. 259). We need to build more sustainable, local food production and distribution—a change that is already happening with the significant increase in farmers’ markets and the rise of the local food movement. (Mele, 2013, pp. 259-260)

The Loss of Small Farms

Thomas Jefferson’s and Abraham Lincoln’s ideal was a nation of small independent farmers (Ikerd, 2016, pp. 5-6). Alexander Hamilton’s and James Madison’s ideal of an industrialized society won out. Certainly some sought a more comfortable life in the city, but not all. Factory conditions were brutal and dangerous. Child labor laws and unions were eventually able to promote better conditions. As an oversimplification of complex social conditions, opportunistic land purchases were made with the permission of local officials. These privatized the commons that farmers had relied on for firewood and hunting to supplement their produce. Farms had to reach a level of profitability, often supplemented by members of the family taking in craft work on the side, or the next best option was to move into the cities to seek industrialized work.

Today, globally, that trend continues. Profitability is difficult to reach, even to pay land taxes. Living rurally during the George W. Bush administration, I was part of a group that shared the chore of raw milk pickup from a small farm. On one visit, the dairy owner informed me that he was preparing to sell his cattle. He said he couldn’t get a fair price for his milk, because government-subsidized large dairies could sell for less. He said he felt betrayed after he had voted for Republicans who said they would support small businesses. To be fair, I too felt betrayed after voting Democratic. Not just voting, I was door-to-door campaigning for Obama in a small Republican-dominant town, but was disappointed after the housing crisis and bank bailouts of 2008 left me with a house I couldn’t sell, and that even after refinancing I couldn’t afford to maintain.


My leftist friends and family tell me that this idealism is irrelevant, because most people don’t want to be farmers. Granted, for most small-scale farmers and ranchers, there’s more work and little pay compared to the median income. They are in it for the lifestyle: the supportive community, outdoor areas that are safe for children to explore, a sense of self-sufficiency, healthy home cooking, and an aversion to cubicles, traffic, and bosses.

My city friends, what’s your solution to a global largely unregulated consumer economy that is unsustainable and exploits labor, especially outside the first world? For some, the solution is to get as high up on the economic pyramid as they can, then send some ineffective philanthropic funds to support the impoverished food industry laborers, to ease their conscience and keep the wage-slave workers alive. How do you ethical consumers propose to ensure that food and other products are sustainably sourced and not using an exploited labor force? Buying organic and fair trade products is an important choice, but the majority simply aren’t willing. Our privileged individual choices are not making the large-scale change we need.

Owner and operator of the Urban Farm in central Phoenix recommends a simple frugal life, budgeting to live within his means, that allows him to live sustainably without pressure to produce.

So many people out there in our culture use shopping therapy….i’ve become very comfortable and at peace and really in love with my life and what I do in the world. And a big piece of that was that …I’ve reduced my need to earn. So I don’t, on a given month I can get by on a couple grand. And a buddy of mine, I have two friends, actually one of them is 12,000 a month is what he needs to earn and another one I would guess is double that. Both of them are great friends that I’ve known for decades and they’re both really successful people. But they have to go out and make that kind of money. And so it kind of puts us in a trap….What if you designed a life? And it takes time. I’m not saying that it’s an overnight thing. But what if you reduced your need to earn, and that’s really reducing your spending long term…I’m not saying do without. I have a delightful life. (A Sustainable Mind, 2016, 43:54)

Resources: There are many online courses and other resources about urban agriculture.


Federal and local governments know that for generations small family farms worldwide have found it nearly impossible to compete with government-subsidized agribusiness and damaging policies promoted by multi-national corporate food industries. Most small U.S. farms don’t qualify for FDA small grants or loans, and few farmers could pay the loans back if they did qualify. Most help comes from state or local levels if it comes at all. Property taxes that don’t take into account that the profitability of the land challenges the overall benefit to a community, because the short-term profitability is greater when chopped into lots and sold for single family homes.

Fossil fuel subsidies and short-sighted international trade agreements have led to a harmful and unnecessary situation of nearly identical products being shipped between nations worldwide. For example, England and Germany exchange potatoes, while the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australian, and New Zealand ship each other nearly identical varieties of wine and cheese, as well as other food products (Local Futures, 2021). All concerned with local food security could advocate for policy reform to prevent these wasteful practices that create pollution and make local small farms less competitive. This practice also makes the world food supply more vulnerable to spread of diseases and pests that affect plants and farm animals.

The Biggest Little Farm (Chester et al., 2019) shows how small farmers can make a living, selling at farmers markets where their quality products are valued. The Rhodale Institute’s (2019) Farming Systems Trial, started in 1981, is the longest-running side-by-side trial of organic and conventional in North America. Their data shows organically grown products earn 3 to 6 times higher profits for farmers. Organic yields are competitive with conventional yields after a 5-year transition period.

Mentorship and Partnership

High stakes gambling…nothing more adventurous than trying to grow all your own food….those of us who’ve been at it awhile have helped do is stimulated a movement of younger people wanting to really do this. if we look at that age of 58, what that means is those people are on their way to retirement, so are we going to have family farms? the beginning farmers act gives a tax credit to farmers. it allows beginning farmers who don’t necessarily have their own land to lease land from existing farmers, and so getting that generation, those new young people into ranching and farming and bringing in new folks.…it allows existing farmers to keep their land in agriculture but also allows new farmers to have a mentorship with that existing farmers grow and learn on the land….there’s a demand for local food. there’s the customer base….that allowed us to start up our dream right here. they were already farming there, already had a CSA going for the past few years. we realized that we could come to a really good agreement. [The mentoring farmers then state] The quality of work that they do is outstanding, so it’s a good exchange. [The mentees continued] and in exchange we get a place to live and to work and they get to grow an amount of enterprises they have. I don’t think we could have dreamed up a better situation. (Thompson & Zuccareno, 2018, 21:58)

Land Use

My city friends further argue that for everyone in the city to take up the space to be a small farmer would be an intrusion on wildlife habitat. That doesn’t have to be the case. Small farms can reclaim depleted lots at the outskirts of cities or industrial areas. They can be nestled into areas that would otherwise be considered marginal land. Food forests can be planted on hilly land unfit for large tractors. Similarly, community gardens can be fit into odd-shaped spaces no one else finds a use for.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the land area of the World is 13,003 million hectares; 4,889 million of these are classified as agricultural area by the U.N. This is 37.6% of the land area (Ritchie & Roser, 2019). The agricultural area means the sum of arable land, permanent crops, permanent meadows, and pastures. Dividing the agricultural area by the 10.9 billion people projected in the next century leaves approximately .45 hectare per person.

FarmlandLP’s (2012) analysis concluded, “Altho there are many variables to account for, “How much land is needed to feed a person, for today’s American diet, with today’s agricultural system? I’ll stick with about one acre” (para. 15). This equals approximately .40 hectare, which is a little smaller than an American football field without the end zones. If this is somewhat accurate, as long as we put houses on marginal land, keep them small, or share housing, we can move out to farm rurally without displacing wildlife and without foraging or hunting. Sea levels may rise, giving us less land, but we may develop more aguaculture and floating cities.

Resources: See permaculture on Wikipedia to connect with information resources for this crucial and growing movement. It is a principled farming philosophy incorporating practices local to an area and therefore in harmony with a locality. It is a systemic efficient approach with long-term benefits.

Biochar is produced from heating organic materials like crop waste, grass, wood chips and manure in a high temperature, low oxygen process known as pyrolysis.” (See . It has different properties than ash or regular charcoal. It is ideal for organic gardening but potentially not for conventional gardening/farming, because it absorbs and makes less available some herbicides. In recent research, it has been shown to increase crop yields. On a related note, it has been found effective for contaminant absorption and binding. Production processes and raw material result in vastly different products. Energy production can be a byproduct. is one reputable company creating a high quality product.


Small-scale farming can be much more efficient in fossil fuel use, but relies on human power, which is health-promoting physical exertion. The small farm, as Wendell Berry describes it, doesn’t waste. Manure is used as fertilizer. The large stones pulled out of the field are used for a chimney wall, the small stones for paving paths or lining ditches. The one third globally wasted food does not happen at this scale. What might be discarded by grocers because of irregular shape or blemishes can be re-purposed.

Small scale farming has the advantage of avoiding monocultures that are vulnerable to disease and infestations. This makes it more feasible to practice organic farming, which has several other advantages. Organic farming uses 45% less energy and releases 40% fewer greenhouse emissions.

By abstaining from most toxic synthetic inputs, organic farmers protect the environment and prioritize soil health, wildlife habitat, clean and air water, and nutrient-dense foods. Their emphasis is typically less on maximizing crop yields and more on creating healthy, resilient ecosystems. However, it’s untrue that the difference in yields between organic and conventional is drastic, or that organic doesn’t ever yield as much as conventional. (Rhodale Institute, 2019, sec. 4)


In a film set in rural Colorado, a farmer states the following:

The future is about treating the land right and considering mother nature’s models, not the models of the industry and the establishment. Those models in my view are significantly flawed and propped up with chemicals and things that we really have no idea what their long term effects may or may not be. The future of my family and my children are very important to me, and I’m not willing to risk a long term future on short term gain. (Thompson & Zuccareno, 2018, 20:01)


The only material technologies that routinely survive collapse are small-scale agriculture and small-scale metallurgy, likely because the social technologies needed to sustain such smaller communities can arise organically. (Burja, 2020, p. 162)

Small farms will be more important as climate change is accelerating unpredictable weather patterns; “organic outperforms conventional in adverse weather conditions like drought by as much as 40%” (Rhodale Institute, 2019, sec. 4). A small operation can turn on a dime. They plant multiple crops and have a hedge if one does poorly one season. Alternately, if the harvest of one particular crop in a year was greater than the current local demand, they can preserve it for a later sale or a different use, while an agribusiness in the same situation would not be able to start a complete new business to process the goods. If they couldn’t find a buyer for perishables, they would write it off as a business loss. Small farms can become antifragile, as was evidenced in The Biggest Little Farm (Chester et al., 2019). Antifragility is described as follows:

The fragile works best in situations of regularity and stability; whereas the antifragile improves with every shock….For me, “resilience” refers to the capacity to remain unaffected by shock, by being more adaptable; whereas the antifragile doesn’t just adapt, it improves with every shock. The central idea behind antifragility is [to] feed on big variations, volatile prices, acceleration, disorder, and stress. The fragile, on the other hand…works best in situations of regularity and stability. He believes in rationality and theory. Bureaucracy is fragile, for example, whereas the craftsman is antifragile… We know that funds with very little variability are the first ones to go down. The more stable, the more breakable! Whereas the antifragile uses the fluctuating environment to survive, to make up for the lack of knowledge. I’d rather be stupid and antifragile, like Seneca, than intelligent and fragile! (Taleb, as cited in Portevin, 2019, para. 6)

In The Biggest Little Farm, this resilience was that with each problem, they observed the situation, kept their principles in mind, and eventually found a creative solution that made a benefit out of what had seemed an intractable problem (Chester et al., 2019). These were solutions that would never have been workable in a monoculture farm, because they arose from the interrelations between the varieties of plants, livestock, people, and surrounding wildlife.

Social Mobility

Rani Bang related that many friends say that they have an intention to move to rural areas, but they’re worried about their children’s education. Bang believes that while educational opportunities are important, values are much more important (Awakin, 2021, para. 7).

A Social Safety Net

A resident of a long-term intentional community based on gardening and event hosting, stated the following:

A very important principle is that it’s recognizing our context within the world we live in, and that capitalism, competition, divorces us from nature, and people are busy amassing wealth. They think they create security and certainty for at least themselves and their family, but it is an illusion. (Braziers Park Channel, 2018, 15:06)

Small farms have many advantages. We simply need more of them to meet the needed food supply.

If our social safety net was to provide relocation of those in chronic poverty to supervised subsistence-level farming sites with human services components, instead of long-term handouts of cash and poor quality food from food banks, people’s unwillingness to work or to use our dollar-vote wisely would be a non-issue. We would work because we want to eat. This would be healthier for the workers and more sustainable for the planet, if implemented well. We can arrange this kind of setup without it being mandated. A co-op farm could offer rent-to-own agreements with potentially some work-share in exchange for lower rent.

Promoting Group Self-sufficiency

Self-sufficiency is another term for poverty. In other words, we’d all be living pretty much at the subsistence level. Would you be willing to call that a depression? I would. —Matt Ridley

There are two truths in the statement that self-sufficiency is another term for poverty. One is that small farms, once the ideal self-sufficient lifestyle, are being lost anywhere that land taxes are too high for profits to cover them. They simply can’t compete with subsidized big agribusiness. We would do well to reach out to help preserve small farms thru grant-funded programs of whatever type the farmers are willing to help with. Educational tours, overnight stays advertised thru airbnb, and outdoor events are all ways that farms have found to stay afloat. Funding the farms as emergency preparedness partners could be workable, especially where local governments—farmers report to me–already keep track of livestock counts and presumably in dire circumstances would consider them a community resource more than private property. This ties in to  Derrick Jensen’s (2011) warning that cities ultimately are not conducive to peace or equity.

as soon as you require the importation of resources….your way of life must be based on violence. ….trade will never be sufficiently reliable because, if you require the importation of resources and the people in the next watershed over aren’t going to trade you for it, you’re going to take it. (04:57)

In the western world, there are people willing to unfairly take over land, import slave labor or use other exploitative labor practices, then present their products to an unsuspecting public. Many are unaware of being complicit in subjugation of others.

The other truth of self-sufficiency and poverty is that trying to create a self-sufficient life by ourselves is increasingly unworkable. Almost no one has both the sufficient time and money. To do small scale hobby gardening or farming takes time that most making a median or higher income simply don’t have. To own and maintain property requires a high enough income that one must spend their time at a job that pays more and has more benefits than subsistence livelihoods. Successful ventures have a combination of folks with cash and folks with time. For example, elderly on fixed income and/or retirement funds could purchase land and join with those younger who can contribute sweat equity.

Resources: From a cultural perspective, young farmers tend to see the nuclear family as the core of community, and they find it helpful to use dating sites specific to farmers, because few others understand or support the sacrifices of this lifestyle., Farmer.Singles (easy signup),,, and Though some claim more general sites simply have more members, offering a better overall experience:


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