What can family pharmacies learn from the plight of the family farm?


Family farms disappear as globalization pushes farming to consolidation and specialization. Are there parallels with the family pharmacy?

One assigned book in a technology, globalization and culture graduate course at Iowa State University includes the book Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism. The graduate course is an effort between the department of mechanical engineering and that of World Languages and Cultures After reading the book, I found parallels between the challenges that American farmers face with globalization as American pharmacists do. I talked to the author, Richard C. Longworth, about his thoughts on possible parallels between farming and pharmacy.

While he immediately discounted himself as a pharmacy expert, he did notice that three of the larger chains took hold in his smaller Iowa hometown. In the early part of the book, he recounts a furniture manufacturer that managed to hold on because of its ability to purchase large shipping container sized orders. As family pharmacies often lack this purchasing power, they might resemble the smaller furniture stores that went out of business leaving only a few larger chains. However, we talked about the small farms that did survive and what techniques they used to do so. I thought these techniques might inform the family pharmacy.

He divided farms into three broad categories. The small farm of 50 acres or less, the mid-sized farm between 50 and 500 acres, and the large farm of 2,000 acres or more. This division, I believe, resembles the lone independent, the regional chain, and the national chain structure we have in pharmacy.

The small farms specialize in one or two crops and they can do all the work themselves. They may employ a little help, but they have the challenge of getting these crops to market or if organic, getting that certification. Farm co-op organizations help those smaller farmers that just want to raise the food arranging for shipping, packaging, and labeling. Longworth says niche farming is getting bigger, just like organic farming, but becoming so technology dependent that doing it alone becomes extremely difficult.

The family pharmacy without central fill or robotic automation technology similarly falls prey to this dearth of technology. While many family pharmacies use the word “independent,” rather than “family,” that moniker may not align with the cooperation that can keep these important pharmacies viable.

Farmers didn’t necessarily choose to consolidate; it’s just that each subsequent generation fewer people wanted to stay on the farm. This led to the purchase of neighboring farms and ever-bigger agricultural plots. While graduating pharmacy students might want to own their own business instead of working for a chain, the cost to an indebted pharmacy student could be prohibitive.

What if, however, pharmacy automation progressed as it has on the farm? Mega farms can run the largest harvesting equipment with GPS and remote control. The economics of the technology enables one farmer to do ever more work, but the cost of this technology is enormous.

What if, however, regional cooperatives formed between these independents to purchase this kind of equipment? With more time to focus on specialization, the independent pharmacist might be freed to spend significantly more time with the patient in clinical services.

Many pharmacy schools focus on combining business management or public health degrees with the doctor of pharmacy degree. What might be missing is an option for students to gain a credential in technology like Human Computer Interaction and work within the greater global environment.

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