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.
Lazy S Farm (specialty: hog farming)
“We’ve always farmed—ever since I’ve been married, and that’ll be 50 years this month,” says Larry Sorell, 66, a softspoken fourth-generation hog farmer who raises Red Wattle pigs, a heritage breed. Technically, Sorell is retired. In reality, it’s proving impossible for him to leave farming behind.
When Sorell was growing up, his family’s land totaled 400 acres—not huge by modern standards, but still 10 times larger than its current size of 40 acres. “We sold most of the land in 1980; we had to downsize to keep going,” he explains. At that point, Sorell got a job off the farm. “I worked for a big hog corporation for about 20 years, in management, and when I retired we came back here. We didn’t give it up, though—we were away for a while, but we were always here on weekends.”
His family’s pigs have always been free-ranging—never confined in sties or houses—but the heritage hogs are a recent (and lucrative) addition to his business. When Sorell first returned to his family’s farm, he began raising rare-breed Bronze turkeys and selling them through Heritage Foods USA, an online and mail-order food company. From there, the decision to raise heritage hogs was a logical next step, and the farm’s income has roughly doubled since it began selling the pigs. Chefs at some of the nation’s top restaurants serve meat from Sorell’s farm, and consumers snap up some 1,400 Red Wattle hogs and 4,000 heritage turkeys each year.
The small, rustic farm is home to several other heritage breeds, including chickens, Jacob sheep, and llamas—all of which graze in rotation on fields of brome, a drought-resistant grass. The animals are contained within an electric fence so that they don’t bother the neighbors, who are primarily cattle and hog farmers. But the fields are open to guests, as is the farm’s greenhouse: Sorell’s wife, Madonna, runs a bed-and-breakfast on the property, and another cabin is designated for hunters, who are allowed to use several acres of the farm’s land to hunt deer, pheasant, and quail in season.
Yet despite recent gains, Sorell doubts that any of his nine children or 23 grandchildren will take over the business. “My sons and their wives all have careers, so it would be pretty hard for them to downsize and come to a 40-acre farm,” he says. Only one of his sons is a farmer, and his grain farm is significantly larger than the family plot. While his children do come home often to help out, “that’s about as close as they want to get,” Sorell says.
One upside to being so small, though, is that there has been no encroachment from big agribusiness interests. “Big farmers aren’t interested in 40 acres,” Sorell says. “So it’s not something that they would put their eye on.”
Story by Christy Harrison. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in April 2007.
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