Farm Household Needs Directly Affect Farm Business Viability

Post-Event Report on the U.S. Farm Households’ Social and Economic Needs and the Future of Agriculture Conference

Executive Summary

On September 13, 2023, the Farm Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture hosted a one-day virtual conference, U.S. Farm Households’ Social and Economic Needs and the Future of U.S. Agriculture. The event brought together researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to discuss new interdisciplinary research at the intersection of farm household needs and the farm business and to exchange ideas to better support farm households and U.S. agriculture.

The presentations and discussions highlighted ways that farm household well-being directly influences farm business viability and decision-making. Participants noted that while household factors have not always been a focus of agricultural policy, they require consideration to support family farm production and encourage new farm entrants. Some presentations addressed particular social supports, including access to health insurance, childcare, and financial services that intersect with the goals of strengthening rural economies and communities more generally. Other themes that emerged included the need for data on both farm households and their businesses to study these linkages and the role of non-financial considerations in farm business decision-making. As the structure of agriculture has changed, the needs of farm households have grown increasingly diverse. However, the capacity of rural communities to provide services, such as health care and mental health services, childcare, and other social and economic supports, has often lagged. This conference brought together interested stakeholders to begin a conversation on a more holistic means of supporting U.S. agricultural production by considering household-level support. All authors presenting original research were invited to prepare manuscripts for a special issue of Agriculture and Human Values (a Springer journal) related to the conference theme, to be published in late 2024. 

Conference Overview

On September 13, 2023, the Farm Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture hosted a one-day virtual conference focused on U.S. farm households’ socioeconomic needs. The event brought together a wide range of social science researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to discuss new research at the intersection of farm household needs and the farm business and to exchange ideas to better support farm households and U.S. agriculture. The day’s agenda, including research paper authors and their affiliations, can be found in Appendix A below.

The conference began with opening remarks from USDA Deputy Secretary Torres Small, highlighting the important but less studied need to support farm households in ways that go beyond programs focused on agricultural production and the farm business. A panel discussion among farmers and farm service providers offered concrete perspectives on how initiatives like strengthening rural communities, promoting mental health, access to childcare and healthcare support farm viability and recruiting new and diverse farmers.

The themes covered in the opening session were revisited throughout the day during research presentations and informal topical discussions among participants. All of the presentations spoke to the conference theme of linkages between farm households’ well-being and farm business success, but a presentation by Douglas Jackson-Smith was perhaps the most direct. He showed evidence that household shocks, including health changes, divorce, and death, were more predictive of farm survival and exit during the pandemic than farm-level financial shocks. A presentation by Renee Wiatt and Maria Marshall echoed these findings by showing that socioemotional wealth influences farm succession decisions in addition to farm financial health.

“Household shocks, including health changes, divorce, and death, were more predictive of farm survival and exit during the pandemic than farm-level financial shocks.”

Many presentations highlighted the role of communities and the rural economy in supporting farm households and businesses – a theme that members of the opening panel returned to repeatedly in their remarks. Analena Bruce discussed the importance of understanding the broader systems that farmers operate in to understand agricultural production and whether farming is viable. Farm viability depends on factors other than income generation, including mental and physical health. Bruce mentioned that low levels of farm income cause farm households to rely on off-farm income to meet health insurance and economic needs. This topic was addressed directly by Allie Bauman’s work showing that the expansion of Medicaid eligibility allowed beginning farmers to work less off-farm and more on-farm, which may increase farm survival rates. Florence Becot conducted a survey of farm households with children and showed that childcare costs and availability are challenges for 74 percent of farm households. While rural childcare is a community-wide issue, farm households indicated direct tradeoffs between caring for children and investing time and money in their farm businesses, suggesting the interplay between strong social supports for rural communities and the ability to make a living farming.

Another theme of the conference was the diversity of farm households in terms of characteristics, farm production, income, and needs. Mary Ahearn’s presentation outlined ways in which the profession has pursued better data collection on both the farm household and farm business as an essential input for assessing farm household economic needs and the linkages with farm business outcomes and agricultural policy. As an example of improved data, she talked about how women operators were not accounted for in official data, which once remedied reflected their large contributions to agricultural production. Two presentations made use of the contemporary USDA dataset Ahearn discussed covering both household and farm-level information. Katherine Lim used the Agricultural and Resource Management Survey (ARMS) to study older farm households’ income sources and retirement savings, finding that many older farm households rely heavily on social security income and private pensions, and that the majority have a private retirement account. Farm operators of color; however, have lower levels of retirement savings and lower levels of income overall. Tia McDonald combined ARMS with bank branch location data to show that being geographically closer to a physical bank branch was associated with increases in savings behavior among farm households again highlighting the intersection of strong rural communities with farm household well-being and farm operation financial performance.

This conference brought together stakeholders to study and address challenges faced by farm households. The throughline theme from the conference is that household needs directly affect farm business viability and decision-making. These linkages have not always been evident to researchers and therefore have not been a focus in the development and analysis of agricultural policy. Household social and economic needs intersect with non-agricultural policy and rural development more generally; however, farm households may face unique challenges associated with their status as agricultural producers. To better understand the challenges faced by the diverse population of farms and farm households, it would be beneficial to continue and expand collection of detailed qualitative and quantitative data.

Katherine Lim is a USDA ERS Agricultural Research Economist.

Appendix A: Conference Agenda

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

9:00 AM – 10:00 AM: Welcome Address & Panel Discussion

Welcome Address: 9:00 – 9:10 a.m.

Shoshanah Inwood, The Ohio State University

USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Xochitl Torres Small

Moderated by:

Martha King, Farm Foundation 

Panel Discussion: 9:10 – 10:00 a.m.

Moderated by:

Matt Russell, USDA Farm Service Agency 

Panel Participants:

Dr. Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, American Farmland Trust

Adam Alson, Alson Farms and Appleseed Childhood Education

Mary Saunders Bulan, Rural Advancement Foundation International – USA

Graham Unangst-Rufenacht, Rural Vermont 

10:00 AM – 11:30 AM: Session One, Farm Families’ Persistence and Well Being

Farm Operator Household Well-Being Measurement And Analysis: The Past 50 Years And Future Directions. Mary Clare Ahearn, National Center for Agricultural Policy, and Ashok Mishra, University of Arizona.  

Factors Associated with Farm Survival and Exit During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Ohio. Douglas Jackson-Smith, Ohio State University, Tiffany Woods, Shoshannah Inwood, Julia Linder, and Lauren Gallander 

Discussion Moderator: Becca Jablonski, Colorado State University 

Break & Networking Lounge

Enjoy your lunch while making new connections, collaborations, and digging deeper into the issues with subject matter experts. Discussion tables will convene conference participants with government representatives, farmers, technical service providers, and researchers on specific social and economic needs and common ground issues.

Participants will be automatically assigned to a specific breakout room table topic. You can leave the room at any time and rejoin the lobby area to switch to a different table topic. 

12:30 PM – 2:00 PM: Session Two, Farm Viability in the Face of Social and Economic Needs

“A Farm is Viable If It Can Keep Its Head Above Water”; Farm Viability, Persistence, And The Sustainability Of Agriculture in New England. Analena Bruce (University of New Hampshire), Cindy Zheng, and Elise Neideker

The Impact of Expanded Health Care Coverage On U.S. Beginning Farmers And Ranchers. Allie Bauman (Colorado State University), and Becca Jablonski

Farm Families’ Challenges Meeting Their Social And Economic Needs And The Consequences On the Farm Business:  The Example of Childcare. Florence Becot (National Farm Medicine Center) and Shoshanah Inwood (Ohio State University) 

Discussion Moderator: Jessica Crowe, USDA-ERS

2:05 PM – 3:35 PM: Session Three, Overcoming Barriers to Meeting Farm Household and Farm Business Goals

Farm Households and Retirement:  Incomes Sources and Savings Behavior. Katherine Lim (USDA Economic Research Service) and Ashley Spalding

“Rich And Ready To Go Or Stay And Grow”?  A Succession Preparedness Study Of U.S. Farmers in the North Central Region. Authors: Renee Wiatt (Purdue University) and Maria I. Marshall

Distance To Commercial Banks And Farm Household Use of Financial Services. Tia McDonald (USDA, Economic Research Service) and Noah Miller 

Discussion Moderator:  Shoshanah Inwood, The Ohio State University 

3:35 PM – 4:00 PM, Closing Remarks

Panel of organizers reflecting on the conference, discussion questions, and concluding thoughts.

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