Summer 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 2 // Tools of the Trade // 2TOT1

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Gaining Ground: The Renewal of America's Small Farms


C. Stephen Scheneman
Extension Specialist-Professional Development
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and
State University - Blacksburg

Gaining Ground: The Renewal of America's Small Farms. J. Tevere MacFadyen. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984. 242 pp. $16.95.

The public's becoming increasingly aware of the plight of the small farmer in America. Even Hollywood has picked up the theme with its release of the motion pictures "Country" and "Places in the Heart." MacFadyen tries to educate the public further in this book by focusing on efforts of small farmers to survive tough economic times through their dedication, resourcefulness, and hard work.

The author gives his perspective on current conditions in American agriculture and its probable future. His viewpoint is derived from three years of travel in New England, the South, the Great Plains, and the West where he talked to men and women farmers in their fields and homes. In many cases, he worked beside them as an observer and raised questions about the challenges of farming.

MacFadyen found an industrial or corporate agriculture about to run its course, leaving both the farm family and the environment impoverished. For example, agricultural indebtedness has tripled in the last 10 years, with 50% of the farmers facing possible bankruptcy. In addition, industrial agriculture has also contributed to the demise of the environment: topsoil erosion, water pollution, and groundwater depletion.

However, hope for the future of American agriculture may rest in the renewal of the small farm. MacFadyen acknowledges that even though the odds are big against success of the small farm, they're not down and out. He considers optimism as an essential ingredient of American agriculturejust as sun, soil, and water. His own optimism is based on: (1) the character of people currently engaged in small farming; (2) the emergence of markets conducive to small farming, such as roadside stands, farmers' markets, pick-your-own farms, and local retail food stores; and (3) an increasing emphasis on organic and biological farming practices.

According to MacFadyen, both large- and smallscale farming operations are needed-industrial agriculture supplies society's basic food needs and small farms provide locally grown, quality produce. If American agriculture is to prosper, both large- and small-scale farms will have to adopt a mixture of organic/biological farming practices and conventional agricultural methods. Farmers aren't so intensively concerned about the classification of practices-organic/biological vs. conventional agriculture-as they are about methods that benefit their farm.

He cites the USDA/land-grant university system as one of the most valuable resources for aiding agriculture in general and small farmers in particular. However, the small farmer's lack of access to reliable and appropriate research and technical help from the USDA/land-grant university system makes survival of small farms in America more difficult.

If MacFadyen's perspective is correct, then two major implications for the USDA/land-grant university system exist. First, additional research in organic/biological farming practices will be needed and multidisciplinary teams of scientists to conduct this type of research will be required. Second, Extension must view the farm as an interdependent system comprised of people, plants, animals, and its environment. Extension must adopt a holistic approach of each farm unit and use contributions from all its program areas. A unified, comprehensive program must be developed with a concern for: (1) quality of family life, (2) enhancement of high quality food products, and (3) preservation of the environment.