New report makes the cases for multifunctional family farms

North American farm families today face a number of major challenges — some inherent in the nature of farming and others new. In a new report produced by agriculture economist John Ikerd, professor emeritus of the University of Missouri-Columbia, he takes a thorough look at the state of family farms in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

“Perhaps the most important challenges in all three countries of North America,” he writes, “are government farm policies that increasingly support the industrialization of farming in a quest for economic efficiency.” This leads to highly specialized “monofunctional” farm operations and makes it difficult for diverse family farms to survive economically while maintaining their social and ethical commitments to multifunctionality.

Ikerd argues that sustainability may well be the defining question of the 21st century: How can we meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future?  Sustainable farming is inherently multifunctional in that sustainability has three key dimensions: ecological integrity, social equity, and economic viability. Mono-functionally managed farms inevitably compromise ecological and social integrity in their quest for ever greater economic efficiency. Only farmers that manage multifunctionally are capable of farming sustainably and thus deserving of the historical high esteem awarded family farming.

Prof. Ikerd’s report complements our analysis on farming, food production and the environment and the recently released reflection, “The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader” (see blog posting below). We encourage viewers to take the time to read through Family Farms of North America and see if you agree with Ikerd’s compelling argument. Here’s a brief selection from his report, released earlier this month:

“Farms are inherently multifunctional in that they have inherent economic, ecological, and social consequences. Sustainable family farms are special in that they are intentionally multifunctional. They are managed to provide multiple benefits. Multifunctional family farms are not simply a means of economic livelihood for the family; they also are a social and ethical way of family life. They provide social and economic benefits to their communities and societies as well as to their families. They provide ecological benefits to communities, societies, and humanity though ethical stewardship of the land, water, air, and energy of the earth.”

He goes on to argue that when farm operations are managed solely or predominately for economic benefits, even if family owned and for the benefit of the family, these operations are not sustainable in the long run. Such farms can have adverse effects on communities and ecosystems, which in turn will lead to eroding food production and eventual food insecurity for vulnerable communities, regions and nations.

As Prof. Ikerd’s report shows, and our Faith, Food & the Environment project implores, the family farms worthy of high esteem are multifunctional family farms.

Intrigued to learn more about the work of Prof. emeritus John Ikerd and his distinguished career in promoting sustainable agriculture? He maintains an active website where you can find many of his published reports, presentations and essays; he also continues to speak at various public forums around the country.