INTERIM SONDEO REPORT
NORTH FLORIDA FSR/E PROJECT
June 30, 1981
Following a pre-sondeo in six counties in North Florida ending in a
report to the Administrative Coordinating Committee, the Advisory Committee
and Extension personnel from District II, Suwannee and Columbia Counties
were chosen as the area in which the North Florida FSR/ETeam would concen-
trate activities. It was decided that efforts should be oriented toward
the small, conventional farmer rather than the "sub-divsion" farmer. The
Sondeo was initiated June 18 with two full-time and up to six part-time
participants (4 of these, graduate students). This report is an attempt
to pull together the team's thinking following field work through June 26
and interviews with 27 farmers since June 18.
By the nature of the Sondeo procedure, it is dangerous to make a for-
mal report before the completion of the activity. The purpose of the Sondeo
is to converge on a problem set beginning with an unknown number of unknown
elements relating to a largely unknown population. As convergence progresses,
sometimes directions will change drastically as conjectures or preliminary
hypotheses are confirmed or rejected. Occasionally, a completely new path
is required to fully understand the signals the team receives. Optimally,
all members of a Sondeo team should be full-time during the period of the
activity and should be able to meet together frequently to discuss new find-
ings and to change interviewing partners. This has been difficult to accom-
plish with the majority of the team working on a part-time basis.
It should also be noted that any number of individuals may possess some
of the knowledge which the team is accumulating. Some people may be much
more knowledgeable about certain of the findings, and perhaps, a few will
have the same general knowledge as the team is amassing. The differences
are: 1) this information is being put together by a team, most of whom
will be working with the same farmers in the future; 2) it is being inter-
preted by people from different disciplines and experiences, a process which
hopefully will generate a new approach to solving the problems of the farm-
ers; and 3) it acquaints the farmers in the area with the team members and
their mission as well as acquainting the team with the area and the farmers.
The strength of the Sondeo procedure is the representation of a number
of disciplines and experiences: the more there are represented, the higher
the probabilities of unearthing real problems and generating acceptable
solutions in an efficient and timely manner. It must be stated, that be-
cause of limited resources and time, it has not been able to create a team
with all required disciplines represented on a full-time basis. The team
has no representatives from animal science or agricultural marketing, two
critical areas, and has only part-time support from several other necessary
Given these disclaimers and with the plea to understand that the direc-
tion in which it appears the Sondeo is moving at the present time is not
necessarily the final direction, this report has been prepared to help the
team assess where it is at the present time and to aid in the budgeting pro-
cess by providing some additional information to appropriate decision makers.
Goals of Small Family Farmers
The goals and aspirations of the farmers with whom the team is working
vary from individual to individual and with the socio-economic status of
each. In particular, the degree in which he and his family depend on the
farm for their livelihood plays an important role in determining the farmer's
goals, and the type of farming system he is apt to have evolved.
The strongest commonly shared goal is the desire to maintain what can
be called the "rural way of life," This, perhaps more than any other single
goal, provides the motivation that keeps the small farmer on the farm, often
in the face of very low returns. Although it is extremely difficult to
quantify the importance of this aspiration, virtually all farmers, young and
old, full-time or part-time, will stress their desire to continue farming as
a way of life as long as it is feasible. The relatively large number of
people who are returning to the family farm, or even entering farming for the
first time, is indicative of the strength of this motivation.
Nevertheless, profit, even a small profit, may provide a significant in-
crease in the family's standard of living. While farm income may, in many
cases, be secondary to off-farm income in absolute terms, the farm income
often provides the additional cash that permits the family some desirable
amenities in life and raises the family above the socio-economic status in
which it would otherwise fall. In addition, the utility value of the farm,
including its ability to provide recreational, social, and community activi-
ties, and other factors, such as food for personal consumption, is highly
Given the difficulty of extracting a profit from a small farm enterprise,
and the high rate of failure and loss of conventional family farms, it is not
surprising that these farmers are concerned with being able to retain owner-
ship of the land. For semi-retired and retiring, older farmers who own the
land free of debt, this goal is more easily fulfilled. Many of them are
satisfied with a farming system that enables them to continue farming with
low risk and no need to incur debt (hence, low input). For those who are buy-
ing the land, the need is to find a system that will provide a situation where
"the land can pay for itself." In both cases, profit as important as it is,
appears to be secondary to insuring that the farmer will not lose his land.
Given the high cost of land, labor, inputs, and interest, and the low
profit per unit product, the risk of losing the land as a result of a bad
year is high. For the small farmer, a bad year can mean the loss of his
farm and home, and not simply a low profit or profitless year. Hence, diver-
sification is a frequent characteristic on these farms.
Livestock/Agronomic-Crop Farming Systems
Low resource farmers of Suwannee and Columbia Counties combine comple-
mentary livestock and agronomic crops in proportions that vary widely from
farm to farm. Although emphasis on most farms is that of producing crops
such as corn, millet, peanuts (for 'hogging-off'), rye, Coastal Bermuda and
Pensacola Bahia grass as feed for cattle and hogs, some farms produce these
crops for direct sale at the market with little emphasis on livestock.
Others purchase much of their feed at the market and concentrate on raising
livestock and other cash crops.
Nearly every farm produces corn as a traditional,low cost, low risk,
low management, readily marketed and versatile crop. Farmers who are not
limited by land seem content with lower yields per unit of land area and
use fewer inputs per acre over more acres. For those who feel fuel cost
as a constraining factor there is a tendency to utilize higher levels of
inputs to obtain greater production levels on fewer acres. However, irri-
gated corn has not been observed on any small farm to date. Corn grain is
primarily fed to hogs or sold. At the present time, with drastically re-
duced hog numbers, most corn is sold.
Peanuts are another source of hog feed onsome of these livestock
oriented farms. The practice of 'hogging-off' peanuts has been more common
in the past, but it still is encountered. Utilized as part of the crop ro-
tation system, hogs are turned into the peanuts between September and Decem-
Swine production on these farms has relatively low capital and labor
requirements. Most operations are farrow to finish rather than specialized.
With the exception an occasional feed mill and corn storage facilities, cap-
ital investment in equipment and housing is low. One frequent capital in-
vestment however is a purebred boar.
Land devoted to beef cattle production often comprises one-third of the
total farm. A major part of the pasture land is planted to Pensacola Bahia
for spring and fall grazing. Millet is an important feed source in summer
in rotation with Bahia pasture. In general, cattle are turned into the corn
after the fall harvest and then provided rye and/or hay during the winter
months. As with swine, capital investment and labor requirements are relatively
low, but purebred bulls are periodically rotated to maintain hybrid vigor.
There are several important advantages to this livestock/cropping system
that allow the family farmer to remain viable under adverse economic and cli-
matic conditions. The salient feature in such a system is the diversifica-
tion of enterprises, each one capable of producing a marketable good indepen-
dently of the others, yet each enterprise also capable of full integration
within the farming system to produce a higher valued product.
A second feature of this system is that the crops grown do not require
extensive amounts of high cost inputs to produce yields that are sufficient
for a small farmer to make ends meet, but may be intensively managed to in-
crease output if the need arises. This gives the farmer 'breathing room'
and allows him to adjust his production practices to available resources,
weather and market conditions.
A third advantage lies in the fact that the livestock are often used as
a form of stored capital and can be converted into cash at any time. This
allows a small farmer to build a cushion to help withstand temporary cash
Fourth, the livestock produced on the small farm provide a large share
of the meat required for family use at low cost, reducing the necessity of
spending cash off the farm.
Tobacco-Peanut Centered Systems
Tobacco has been an important source of income to farmers in Columbia
and Suwannee counties, although individual acreage has been relatively small.
Strict acreage controls and favorable support prices have made tobacco a low-
er risk, high return enterprise in an agricultural environment generally
characterized by high risk and low return.
While some tobacco is still grown by small farmers without irrigation,
most allotments have been combined through rental arrangements into units
large enough to irrigate. Areas ranging from 10 to 80 acres, grown under
high input, high management, labor intensive conditions, characterize this
diversified farming system. A 10 acre minimum is often mentioned for irri-
gated tobacco to justify the additional capital expenditures for buildings
and equipment. Bulk drying sheds have replaced stick barns on these farms,
requiring far less labor and handling. Critical timeliness in spraying, top-
ping and harvesting and lack of labor-replacing machinery are among the fac-
tors which make tobacco so labor intensive. Full-time hired labor is not un-
common depending on number and age of children. The quality of occasional
labor is often mentioned as a problem.
Cash expenses per acre range from $1900-$3000. Because most farmers
irrigate other crops besides their tobacco from the same irrigation system,
few growers know their irrigation costs per acre of tobacco (or per inch of
water). Few growers seem to know which stages of growth are uneconomic to
irrigate although they all know what stages are absolutely critical in their
Other major farm enterprises in this system include corn, soybeans,
watermelons, pigs, cattle, improved pasture, contracted chickens, and timber.
Some tobacco growers, however, feel watermelon is not well-suited for tobacco
growers due to similar timing for heavy labor and management requirements.
Most small family farmers who own a tobacco allotment rent it out as a
source of sure cash income and can earn 50 to 60 cents a pound or about $1000
per acre of allotment. A few farmers, nevertheless, continue to produce to-
bacco without irrigation, usually on fewer than 10 acres. Although risk is in-
creased over the renting out of the allotment, returns can be higher. The en-
terprise mix in this system can be any of those included in the irrigated
tobacco system, and tobacco continues to be the principal crop.
Although even non-irrigated tobacco has been profitable in the past, in-
creasing propane cost when used in conjunction with stick barns could easily
force many more of these growers out of tobacco production. Pooling tobacco
for drying and pooling labor are two strategies which are being used to alle-
viate problems faced by these small tobacco farmers.
Peanut centered system
Peanuts, as a cash crop, are found in a system that is similar to the two
tobacco systems, except it is more common in the southern part of the area, while
the tobacco systems are more common in the northern part. As in the tobacco
systems, peanuts are the most important crop and other activities on the farm cen-
ter around the time and resources available after they have been accounted for.
Gardening and Commercial Vegetable Production
Sondeo results seem to indicate that home gardening is more important
to the small family farm than had been previously considered. Home canning
centers in both Columbia and Suwannee counties have reported large increases
in both the number of persons using the facilities and in the volume of pro-
duce processed. Small scale commercial producers in both counties have re-
ported lower sales volumes which they attribute to an increased number of
Preliminary data indicate that home gardening activity decreases with
increased scale of agricultural production. Low resource farmers using
traditional production practices seem to place more emphasis on the garden
than higher resource farmers using high input, large scale agribusiness
techniques. Excess produce can be sold for additional cash income or traded
for other goods and services. These practices can be especially useful to
those persons who are retired and living on a fixed income.
Commercial vegetable production
Commercial vegetable production, on the other hand, is severely handi-
capped by a lack of market facilities in this area. Most vegetables are
sold to area residents and locally-owned retail outlets. Most supermarkets
do not purchase produce from local sources. Some marketing occurs at local
farmers' markets in Lake City and Live Oak. No facilities exist within the
counties for grading, packing and selling produce for more distant markets
although a cooperative in Suwannee county is attempting to establish such a
The closest commercial marketing outlets which are used by some area
farmers are located at Thomasville, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida. The
long distances involved in marketing at these locations require a consider-
able expenditure of fuel and time on the part of the farmer which is not
cost effective if the amount for sale is small, as is generally the case.
Several packing houses are found to the south in Alachua county, but
are reported to pay less for the farmers' product than the more distant out-
lets, Although these are seldom used by farmers from either Columbia or
Suwannee counties, they do have the capability of grading, packing and selling
snapbeans, squash, cucumbers and bell peppers.
Due in part to the restrictions imposed by the market situation, vegetable
production is not a serious commercial component in the farming systems ob-
served to date (with the exception of one farmer who grows vegetables almost
exclusively). In addition, the high capital and labor inputs and more strin-
gent management requirements necessary for production of quality vegetables
result in further restrictions, especially upon those farming systems defined
by limited capital and management.
In spite of these difficulties, however, several farmers emphasize the
importance of the limited cash returns obtained by local marketing of small
quantities of vegetables. An important reduction in food expenditures was
also noted by many farmers with vegetable plots.
Although important to some, local marketing is not an option for large
numbers of smaller farmers. The local market is easily saturated, unstable,
and offers a limited return. Unless a major change in market structure should
occur, vegetable production per se does not appear to be a viable alternative
for the limited resource, small scale farm operation.
The farms which have been' visited to date seem to fall into two major
categories, both of which can be called small family farms:
1) Livestock/agronomic crop farming system, and
2) tobacco or peanut centered system.
Farms with a tobacco or peanut centered system are more apt to have irriga-
tion, require more management effort, are usually more profit oriented and
more highly capitalized.
Gardens seem to have more importance to the small family farm than had
been earlier realized and more efforts need to be put into interpreting
their full meaning to the farm systems in this area. Commercial vegetable
production is not too important and should probably be limited in any future
program to those few with already developed marketing channels such as pep-
pers, squash, cucumbers and snapbeans.
As a general rule, land is not a particularly limiting factor on these
farms. More important as constraints are labor and management time. The
effect of capital as a constraint is variable, but high risk investment is
Goals of these farmers are varied, but it appears that one very impor-
tant goal is to maintain a rural way of life. In other words, the farm is
first a home. As a home, it should provide the family with the desired
amenities, but not at high cost or risk. Where this is an overriding goal
of the family, it has important implications to the farming system and usual-
ly leads to diversification and relatively low capital investment. Changes
in the farming system are undertaken, but cautiously, and only after the
family has been satisfied that it will not impinge on the farm as a home.
This, then, is the panorama within which the program must be undertaken:
devise alternatives for family farm diversification in an environment that
has reduced the number of present alternatives and in the face of limited
labor, management time and risk capital.