It’s not easy running a family farm in the U.S. these days, and the statistics reflect that. Every week, roughly 330 farmers—including families that have farmed for generations—quit the business. In 1935, there were nearly seven million farms in the U.S.; by 2002, only around two million remained. And family farms that do stay in business have an aging workforce; today more than half of farmers are between the ages of 45 and 64, while only six percent are younger than 35. So what’s it like to run a family farm? And what does it take to keep one afloat? We posed these questions to owners of five long-running farms around the country. While all agree that the natural-foods movement helps business, they are each embracing different strategies for keeping their farms up and running. Two are actively planning for growth and expansion, enlisting other small farms to help grow crops, and thereby helping those farmers keep their way of life. Others are scaling back—or encouraging younger generations to seek other professions. Here are their stories.

Lundberg Family Farms (specialty: rice)

Richvale, California

Albert and Frances Lundberg left their corn farm in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl era, headed west to California’s Sacramento Valley, and bought a 300-acre rice field. The crop, they reasoned, was well-suited to the fertile land at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas, and would lend itself well to the kind of eco-friendly farming they hoped to practice. Albert and Frances have since passed away, but today, Lundberg Family Farms—one of the largest growers of organic rice in the country, with annual sales between $10 and $50 million—is about 14,500 acres strong, including land they’ve contracted from about 30 other family farms.

How did this farm manage to grow while staying in the hands of one family? The second- and third-generation Lundbergs aren’t quite sure. Albert and Frances’s four sons decided independently to go into farming within a few years of one another; eventually, they joined forces to take over the family business. But when it came time for their own children to enter the workforce—including Jessica Lundberg, now 32, and her cousin Grant Lundberg, now 43—there was some uncertainty about the farm’s ownership.

“I didn’t always know I’d go back,” says Jessica, now the nursery manager and board chair of the company. A former biology student who once thought she might go to medical school, Jessica ultimately found that she could apply her knowledge of biology on the farm. She enthusiastically describes the details of her job: figuring out organic methods for increasing crop yield, developing new varieties of rice, and managing the quality of each crop. “We’ll actually walk the rice fields with knives and bags and cut out anything that’s not supposed to be there,” she says, referring to weeds and other plants that may have gotten mixed in with rice seeds as they were planted. “It’s a lot of fun.” Indeed, Jessica’s passion makes terms like “seed soaks” and “worm castings” sound exciting.

And as chair of the company’s board, Jessica also enjoys the opportunity to use her communication skills (and to dress up instead of trekking around in muddy boots). Jobs like this, which didn’t exist in the past, have allowed third-generation Lundbergs to continue working in the business. “Some family members are out in the field every day, and others are on the business side,” says Grant, now the CEO of the company. (He falls squarely into the latter camp.)

Of course, many of these new roles would not exist if the company wasn’t successful. That’s the chicken-and-egg problem of any family business: It has to be doing well enough for the next generation to want to get involved, but the kids also have to contribute in order for it to do well. The Lundbergs have had the good fortune to strike this balance for three generations in a row.

And the growth of the natural-foods industry certainly hasn’t hurt. Albert and Frances used sustainable growing practices before it was chic, but they sold their rice to large distributors, so it was never labeled organic. Their children, recognizing a demand for natural products in the ’60s, began selling their organic and eco-farmed rice under the Lundberg name. And they continued to adopt eco-friendly practices, including wind power and the construction of special mills and storage facilities that can be kept pest-free without the use of chemicals.

Now, with the organics market booming, Grant says the challenge for the third generation “is to be as innovative as my dad and his brothers were.”

Story by Christy Harrison. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in April 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Also in this series

It's a family farming affair: California
Behind the scenes of eco-conscious farms.