Acton Institute Powerblog

Making The Family Farm Profitable

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ENERGY COMPANIES DRILL FOR OIL IN THE NIOBRARA FORMATION IN NORTHEASTERN COLORADOThere is much nostalgia about America’s agricultural past that many seem incapable of releasing. But the reality is forcing a new narrative about the family farm. In an era of globalization and government subsidizing large agribusinesses, family farmers have no choice in the near future but to diversify the use of their land and do something that is actually profitable. In the light of these realities, family farming is slowly becoming more of a hobby than a means of making a serious contribution to the U.S. food supply. The farmland owned by families in the past must continue to be developed for new and better uses if families want to still remain connected to that land.

For example, the New York Times today reports on the growing trend of North Dakota farms opening their land to oil drilling in order to remain viable. John Eligon reports that North Dakota family farmers, Mike and Kim Sorenson, receive royalties from oil that is produced on their land and from allowing drilling, which accounts for about 10 percent of their income. In fact, North Dakota has slowly become the second-largest oil producing state in the country and helped the state build a surplus of more than $1.6 billion. With this growing industry comes all of the ancillary markets needed to maintain oil production like waste management. North Dakota farmers with land that is drilled for oil are now wrestling with the realities that oil production requires a management infrastructure that will forever change the landscape.

Westerners seem to be more vulnerable to a form of geographical romanticism that leads them to believe that the only change that was good was the change they benefited from originating in the past. New, innovative change, however, needs to be put on the alter of utopian visions of life remaining the same. Geographic romanticism holds that communities, farms, landscapes, and so on, will and should remain in the form that we enjoyed them in the past but this sentiment does nothing but stifle and discourage innovation and encourages politicians to pursue a viral growth of government regulations in the name of “preservation.”

Perhaps the American pursuit of comfort and ease has killed the entrepreneurial imagination that built this country but today’s family farmers are being forced to chose innovation over romanticism so that they do not have sell their farms to someone else who will sleep just fine making such a trade-off.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • Tiresias Colonus

    I completely agree with your conclusion that family farms need to innovate to remain in existence in an ever-changing, global marketplace, and oil exploration is an excellent example of this type of diversification and innovation. I have one suggestion, though. The vast majority of farms in America are corporations for tax purposes, but they remain family owned and operated. As such, making a stark distinction between large, corporate, subsidized “agribusinesses” and small, family-owned farms is mostly false, and I would encourage you to avoid that generalization. Agriculture, like all industries, includes a tremendous amount of variety in terms of operational size of farms, commodities grown, geography, etc. All of these farms are integral to feeding our nation and the world.

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  • Ken Larson

    I do not know the extent throughout the country to which what I’m about to describe exists but think it a piece of the story Prof. Bradley relates. In the area of Virginia where I live there are many “family farms” that are holdovers from a bygone era. Pieces of larger properties have been sold off in some cases. In others they were never that large. But I know of several instances wherein a regional “farmer” pays land rent to the property owner in order to basket this property with others in an area for the purpose of raising corn or soy beans, or in a few cases grass. The arrangements seem to have been going on for years and years and surprisingly enough exist with holdings that are as small as 6 acres. I know specifically of one farm where the tillable area is somewhere around 45 acres and the yearly payment is $1,000. [Please, no comments from the no-till crowd]

    This isn’t the tenant farm where, as in Flannery O’Connor’s stories, the corn is grown right up to the edge of the porch. It’s a workable relationship that also includes in the case I know, a sharing of any venison that happens to get in the way of the “farmer’s” gun barrel as he tends the fields.

    The payment in some cases likely goes toward a portion of the property taxes that counties continue to raise in order to finance stuff like community centers and new schools or my favorite, the free clinic. Things that the Ruritans or church used to tend to. And the family physician too, where in our area as well as others, there’s talk of a new variation on an old theme: concierge healthcare. I wonder if it will include the provision of organic eggs, or a chicken, or some venison in lieu of payment in dollars.