The (Unexpected) Comeback of the Small Farm

The word's been out for some time: they're all gone, not a functioning one left. Statistics coming down from on high in the 1970's "proved" that the small farm—defined as that with a total income of less than $20,000 annually—was about shot. This came as something of a surprise to those still living and working small farms.

What a "small farm" actually is has been a confusing issue for at least a century. The 1862 Homestead Act considered the 160-acre farm a small operation, worked by a single extended family with livestock-powered technology. By the 1940's, a small farm was synonymous with "part-time farm," "retirement farm," and "subsistence farm." It was the family farm that remained the backbone of the nation, one that required the work of a family and gave back a decent living.

After 1950, the "small farm" designation no longer applied to the physical size of the place, but instead to its gross income. In the 1960's, a small farm was any farming unit that sold less than $10,000 in produced goods. By the 70's, courtesy of an unstable economy and befuddled policies, the small farm was defined as selling less than $20,000. That twenty-grand number was supposed to be the break-even point—20G put in, 20G taken out. You had to make more than that to live.

By 1981, the definition of small had...

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