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The concept of the “family farm” holds powerful sway within the American narrative, embodying both nostalgia for an imagined past and anxiety for a future perceived to be under threat. Since the founding of the United States, this cultural ideal has been invoked in support of a rosy vision of agrarian democracy while obscuring the ways in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s codified definition of “family farm” has unfairly aggregated advantages for the benefit of a particular kind of family (nuclear) and farmer (white, male, straight). At the same time, consumers are misled by an under-interrogated conflation of family farming with “good” farming practices. There exists a pervasive fear among Americans that the family farm is at risk of disappearing, and that something must be done to save it. This Essay analyzes the history of family farms in the United States and contends that reclaiming, not rescuing, is what needs to be done. As an alternative to preserving an institution whose benefits have always been constrained by gender, race, and wealth, we propose instead re-orienting efforts toward three concepts rooted in the family farm ideal but which we believe to possess greater transformative potential: fairness—the distribution of benefits along the agrifood chain to ensure adequate compensation and access; self-determination—the ability for communities to make their own decisions within the food system; and “good” farming—the specific practices that could lead to a more just, humane, and sustainable food system.



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