Chapter 10: Farms, Farmers, and Farming in Contemporary Rural Society

In Chapter 10, “Farms, Farmers, and Farming in Contemporary Rural Society,” we analyze long-term trends in the structure of agriculture, noting the impacts of the dramatic decline in the number of farms over the last century. We examine family farmers’ livelihood strategies and discuss the social and economic environments affecting farms, farmers, and farming of today.
We close with a discussion on the “food system,” emphasizing that farming is only one aspect of a more comprehensive set of social, economic, and biophysical relationships that extend from the resource base to scientific research to produce activities to the marketing of food/fiber and finally to household consumption. It is important to note that even though agriculture no longer provides a major share of rural employment and earnings in most regions, farms, farmers, and farming continue to play important roles in contemporary society.

Author Podcast
Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

1. Farming and agriculture are deeply embedded in a global capitalist system. From your understanding of this chapter, what is the relationship between farming and global capitalism? How has this affected rural communities?

2. Figure 5.1 in Chapter 5 (Community Institutions in Rural Society) represents the change over time in the shrinking number of school districts and, accordingly, their growth in size. In this chapter, Figure 10.1 shows the change in the number of farms over time, both showing growth of units and consolidation of over time. Even though the structure of education and agriculture seemingly have little inter-relationship, can parallels be drawn between these two historical processes? What accounts for the consolidation of farms and the consolidation of school districts? What can we learn by examining these two processes?

3. What are some possible implications of institutional consolidation (e.g., a smaller number of larger institutional units, such as farms or schools) for rural people and communities?

4. What is meant by the term “civic agriculture”? What attributes signify the presence, or absence, of civic agriculture?

5. The U.S. leads the world in its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and is one of the world’s top producers in agricultural commodities. Nonetheless, the U.S. also has significant poverty levels. A 2017 report showed that nearly 12 percent of American households were food insecure at some point in the previous year. This means that household members were, at times, unable to “acquire adequate food for one or more household members because they had insufficient money and other resources for food,” (Coleman-Jensen, Rabbitt, Gregory, and Singh 2018, p. 6)*. What might the challenges and opportunities be for local food systems to address food insecurity? More broadly, what public policies might, or could, exist to address food insecurity?

6. What is meant by the term “food system”? How does it differ from a specific focus on farming and agriculture?

7. How might market-based food systems be developed to offer economically sustainable levels of financial reward to all participants in the food chain, while simultaneously providing safe, nutritious, natural resource-stewarding and affordable food to consumers?

8. President Donald Trump has instituted tariffs on various products imported from Canada, China, and other U.S. trading partners. How might these tariffs, and the trade war they are precipitating, affect American farmers and farm dependent communities?

* Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M.P., Gregory, C.A. and Singh, A. 2018. Household Food Security in the United States in 2017. Economic Research Report No. 256. Washington, DC: USDA Economic Research Service. Accessed at:


1. Exploring the Local Food System. Investigate what evidence you can find for a local or community food system. Depending on the class size, these tasks may be best done by breaking students out across smaller groups. Within your area (depending on the location, this may be a county, city, town, or other relevant unit of locally meaningful unit of geography), identify any existing “u-pick” operations, farmers markets, and CSAs. Also identify any small and locally owned brewers, bakers, wineries, distilleries, and/or specialty food manufacturers. Identify local grocery stores that explicitly market “locally-produced” food. Finally, investigate whether the local school district has any “farm to school” programs and/or engages in purchasing of locally produced foods for the school food service. The food service director at the local school district is the person to contact to learn more.

After having made these contacts, arrange to conduct short interviews. Develop a list of 4-5 main questions to ask. In your interview, try to determine:

  • What are the opportunities and challenges are of producing and/or buying food locally?
  • What are their own interests is in engaging with local food production and marketing?
  • How are these opportunities and challenges have changed over time, if indeed they have?
  • What does your interviewee believe the future will hold for local food systems?

2. Civic Agriculture In Context. Identify attributes that signify the presence, or absence, of civic agriculture. Differentiate it from other forms of agriculture. Contact 5 persons who are knowledgeable about civic agriculture and interview them about factors facilitating and constraining civic agriculture. Produce a poster on these attributes, facilitators, and constraints and share it with the class in a poster session.

3. Future of Farms, Farmers, & Farming. Agricultural systems are situated within social and political environments that have tremendous influence on how they operate. While this chapter provides a current understanding of the foundation of the social and political landscape, there are likely new factors influencing the future of modern-day farming. Ask the class to identify various external social factors (e.g., environmental concerns), internal social factors (e.g., aging farm operators), and political factors (e.g., international trade policy) that impact the current climate. List these elements on the board where the entire class can see. Break the class into small groups and have them discuss how these factors contribute to the future of farms, farmers, and farming. What might farming look like in 20 years? 50 years? Have them identify what they think are the most salient issues facing the future of agriculture. What are other barriers to agricultural vitality? What are potential solutions? Discuss as a class.

4. Researching Trade Agreements. Research and write an essay on trade agreements (like NAFTA), focusing on how these affect farms, farmers, and farming in the 21st Century.