The Case for Small Farms
By Ginny Looney and Duna Norton
Vol. 2, No. 3, 1979, pp. 22-25
When the State Legislature was forming the next-to last county in Alabama in 1877 from the southernmost hills of the Appalachian chain, the legislators joked that the land was so poor a crow would have to carry a sack of corn to survive flying from one end of the county to the other. Yet, the land that became Cuilman County had by 1920 become the top producer of a variety of crops and has since had the largest farm sales of any county in the state.
While the reputation of Culiman County as a farming area has been growing, the reputation of one of the leading agricultural counties during the 19th century has been declining. Lying 65 miles southwest of Montgomery in the area of the Coastal Plain known as the Black Belt because of its large Black population, Wilcox County has the natural advantages to be a prosperous farming area. An 1888 promotional brochure said, Wilcox “is highly favored, both with respect to the character of the land and the abundant supplies of water.” As the vast estates on which cotton once grew
turned to timber and pasture, the fortunes of the two counties shifted until in 1974 Cullman County, with the same amount of farm acreage as Wilcox, had 15 times the amount of farm sales.
The comparison of Cullman and Wilcox Counties offers the classic contrast between small family farms and large family plantations, and a striking evidence of how the ownership and control over land is a major factor in determining a society’s economic structure. In these two counties as elsewhere in the country, the pattern of land ownership determines land use, its productivity and the quality of life in rural communities. In addition, the income of workers, amount of taxes paid and number of public services provided all appear to be tied directly to the number and size of land holdings in a rural county. The results of the comparisons suggest what the government policies have not recognized: small farms are better than large farms for the economic health of a community because they contribute to a larger tax base, more public services, higher median incomes and more intensive use of natural resources.
For almost 40 years, the importance of small farms has been recognized in a few academic circles and government studies. In a study conducted for the Bureau of Agricultural Economics in 1941, Dr. Walter Goldschmidt examined the effect of farm size on community development by comparing two farming communities in California which differed only in the size of nearby farms. Family-sized farms surrounded one, and large corporate farms surrounded the other. The study found people were supported at a higher income near the family-sized farms than near the giant corporate farms, which had a higher percentage of low paid farm workers. Another study done in 1977 to expand Goldschmidt’s work analyzed 136 additional towns in California and found that small farm regions supported more communities, were more viable and offered more services than towns in large farm communities.
Besides improving the economic well-being of a community, small farms also produce food more efficiently, contrary to a widely held belief that big farms are better. “Modern agribusiness is more efficient because so few people are involved in food production,” the myth goes. “One farmer feeds 40 people.” That argument was refuted at a 1978 conference on land ownership in Alabama by Goldschmidt, now a UCLA professor, “When a tractor draws a combine to harvest wheat, the farmer is employing hundreds of hours of urban manpower expended in the steel mills and the oil refineries …. The farming sector of our economy appears to have dwindled remarkably when, in fact, a large portion are agriculturists working in the urban industrial environment.” Studies by the U.S Department of Agriculture in 1967 and 1973 have shown that the most efficient farm is the modern, fully mechanized one or two person operation.
Because Alabama has a tradition of small family farms along the Sand Mountain Appalachian hills and a history of large land holdings where plantations previously dominated in the Black Belt, a comparison of the two regions can show directly the effects of land ownership in the South. Using the 1974 U.S. Census of Agriculture, two students at the University of Alabama selected the 10 counties in Alabama with the smallest average size farm and matched them with the 10 counties in Alabama with the largest average farm size. Farm size was chosen as the factor dividing the two groups because it clearly indicates how well the land, a basic resource, is distributed among the county’s residents.
Jefferson and Montgomery Counties were eliminated from the study because of their metropolitan characteristics. The small farm counties which remained and their average size farm in 1974 are Marshall (80 acres), Cullman (84), DeKalb (87), Walker (91), Winston (99), Etowah (113), Morgan (114), Cleburne (120), and Blount (122). The large farm counties, which are also the counties with high Black populations, are Greene (392 acres), Macon (419), Sumter (427), Wilcox (444), Perry (472), Bullock (482), Dallas (503), Russell (578), and Lowndes (726).
The study found that the counties with more small farms had higher agricultural production and median incomes of both farmers and farm laborers. The small farm counties had more farms and sales with less farm acreage than the “large” counties. While the “small” counties had 11 percent of the state’s farm land, they produced 29 percent of the farm sales. The large farm counties, however, had 18 percent of the state farm land but had only 8 percent of its agricultural products.
Figures on farm production show that the
small land owner uses labor intensive methods in farming in order to get a high return on every acre. The need for economy is not nearly as important for the owner of 500 acres who will use capital intensive methods of farming requiring much machinery and land. Besides making better use of the land, the farmers in the “small” counties had higher incomes, earning nearly $2,000 to $5,000 in 1974. Farmers in the “large” counties earned half as much, and in three of the counties, the median income fell below $1,000.
A composite view of the farmer in the north Alabama counties from the 1974 census is a man with 99 acres, one of 1,500 farmers in the county. He would have crop sales of $1,900 and stock and poultry sales of $20,800 a year with sales averaging $238 per acre. His 1974 income would be $3,270 a year. The statistical “average” farmer in the nine south Alabama counties in the study would own 494 acres as one of 500 farmers in the county. He would sell $6,200 of crops and $10,200 of stock a year for sales of $39 an acre. His median income would be $1,628 a year.
An analysis of several other social and economic factors within the two groups of counties demonstrate that concentrated land
ownership restrains the development of the local community. Among the small farm counties, the three counties with a low percentage of farm land (less than one-fifth of the entire county’s land) had the largest percentages of forest land and the largest concentration of corporate ownership of the forests. Two of the three also had the highest numbers of absentee land owners.
While Walker, Winston and Cleburne Counties fit the pattern of higher farm sales found among the small size farm counties, the relatively low amount of farm land and correspondingly large amount of forest land has resulted, at least in Winston and Cleburne, in low tax revenues and public services more in line with the large size farm counties. Instead of the land being concentrated in the hands of industry and private land owners, thousands of acres of land in those two counties are owned by the federal government as part of the Talladega and Bankhead National Forests. Winston and Cleburne vividly point out the revenue problems for a county when huge tracts of land are withdrawn from the tax rolls.
Except for the two with large blocks of tax exempt government land, the counties with the small farms had a much stronger tax base than the counties with the large farms. Small farm counties had twice as much revenue from ad valorem taxes and two and a half times as much total tax revenues. In turn, the higher tax income has resulted in the small farm counties having twice as many miles of county roads and greater than a third more expenditures for public education. The median income was nearly twice as high while the poverty rate and substandard housing is half as much as in the large farm counties.
A comparison of individual “large” and “small” counties with the same proportion of farm land and rural population also confirms the important role of the small farm community development. For example, both DeKalb in the north and Greene County in south Alabama have 47 percent farm land and 73-80 percent rural population. Twenty-six percent of the workers in DeKalb commute to jobs outside the county while Greene has 21 percent commuters. Despite these similarities, the 1970 median income in “small” farming DeKalb was $5,316 compared to a $3,034 median income in Greene County. DeKalb had 1974 ad valorem taxes totaling $542,000 and 1975 total tax revenues of $1,693,000; in contrast, Greene County with its large farms received $464,000 in ad valorem taxes and $1,440,000 in total taxes. There are three times the miles of county roads and two times the expenditures for education in DeKalb County and only 55 percent of the poverty and 60 percent of the substandard housing that was found in Greene County during the 1970 census.
Land ownership, of course, is not the only factor which differentiates a small farm county from a large farm county. When “small” and “large” counties have the same percentage of farm land, their percentages of urban population and people who commute to work outside the county may differ. More striking, most of the large farm counties have majority Black populations which even through 1970 were governed largely by Whites. The absence of Black elected officials has meant historically that public services, such as roads, were often not extended into the Black community. The extent to which racism rather than land ownership lowered the income of Black Belt counties and the county tax base cannot be identified; however, the two issues are certainly intertwined.
Black farmers, nearly all small operators, are losing land nationally, at a rate of 300,000 acres a year. At the same time, the lack of job opportunities is forcing Blacks, particularly those from 24 to 35 years old, to migrate from the large farm counties. Between 1960 and 1970, two of these Black Belt counties lost a fifth of their population, one county lost a fourth and another a third. More recent figures show that, while most rural areas are gaining population, predominately Black rural areas continue to lose population.
Still land ownership is a crucial factor in the development of a county. No matter how other factors change, the pattern is that small farm counties can support more people at a higher income level than the counties dominated by large farms. The trends suggest, however, that the growing concentration of land ownership isn’t being stopped. The South lost 29 percent, or 454,000 farms, during the decade of the 60s. Southern Black farms decreased by 69 percent. As small farms dwindled in number, the large scale farms increased, and their share of farm sales continue to grow. With government bias in subsidies for large farms and tax laws making it difficult for small farmers to earn a decent living solely from farm income, the main monetary gain for small farmers today is when they sell their farm land. Government policy has effectively excised the culture from agriculture and forced farmers to adopt the large scale economy of agribusiness or leave farming. Most small farmers are leaving.
Ginny Looney is a former newspaper reporter in Alabama who now resides in Atlanta. Duna Norton is director of the Agricultural Marketing Project in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.