Growing small farms, addressing big issues

Mar. 7, 2018

FVSU expert Dr. Xuanli Liu researches organic farming, risk management and agricultural product marketing

In an effort to support small farmers in rural America, Dr. Xuanli Liu, a Fort Valley State University research assistant professor of agricultural economics, is working to find strategies that could help in sustaining a successful business.

To gather information on farming issues, Liu surveyed 1,000 small farmers in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina from August to September 2017. He received assistance from Kelleigh Trepanier, a survey expert and associate director of A.L. Burruss Institute of Public Service and Research at Kennesaw State University (KSU). He is focusing his research on three specific areas related to small farms: organic farming, risk management and agricultural product marketing.

Liu said an agricultural producer is considered a small farmer if his annual gross revenue is $250,000 or less. He noted that small farms have plateaued in recent years but are the linchpin of the future of the agricultural sector.

“The industry as a whole plays a crucial role in the U.S.’s economic development,” Liu said. “The role of small farmers cannot be over emphasized. We are in a stage not just to have food security, but also to think about the types of foods consumers are eating. Paying attention to the business of small farms, we can produce more nutritious, organic foods. The existence and development of small farms could substantially improve health conditions of consumers in the U.S.”

Liu said due to the movement of consumers wanting more organic and locally produced food, small farmers now have some advantages in produce markets. A major advantage is they can claim a price premium from providing organic produce, which has less chemical residues and more labor inputs.

To learn more about small farmers and some of their successes and concerns, Liu recently visited cattle farmer Henry Terhune, a retired agricultural teacher and owner of T-Wil-Away Farm in Peach County, Georgia.

“We started out with 50 acres and six pair of cows,” Terhune said. He was 41 years old when he purchased the land in 1987.

Now at 217 acres, Terhune shares the farm with his son-in-law, who grows crops. “We grow our custom beef for people to put in their freezers,” Terhune said.

Thirty years in business, Terhune has a list of about 50 customers, which varies each year. They guarantee their beef to be United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) choice, yield grade 2 or 3, and all natural. They also offer a two-week warranty.

Although he has faced some limitations, Terhune said the key to his success is perseverance.

“If we can’t pay for it, we don’t do it,” he added, noting he has never borrowed money to maintain his farm. “If it’s necessary, we save money and put it on the agenda.”

Liu acknowledges that Terhune is a successful farmer who managed to make independent decisions. However, he said it is more beneficial for the government to provide needed support to small farmers like Terhune in this area.

Overall, Liu recommends that small farmers work together. He plans to research small farm programs that support the formation of small-scale cooperatives.

“Small farmers really need to team together either in the purchase of inputs or in marketing their products. If they can team together, they will have a larger market power,” Liu advised.

Liu and KSU are currently constructing a report on their research of risk management strategies for small farmers. They will organize a workshop at FVSU later this year for small farmers to demonstrate the risks they encounter, provide effective strategies to handle various risks and educate and train farmers on how to market products and how to make full use of existing programs from USDA.

The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded an $80,000 grant (GOX2311) to Liu in 2016 to implement his proposed project, “Risk Management Strategy in the Southern States.”

For more information about small farms, contact Liu at (478) 825-6831 or