In sports, a farm team, farm system, feeder team or nursery club, generally refers to a team or club whose role is to provide experience and training for young players, with an agreement that any successful players can move on to a higher level at a given point. This system can be implemented in many ways, both formally and informally.
The term is also used as a metaphor for any organization or activity that serves as a training ground for higher-level endeavors. For instance, sometimes business schools are referred to as "farm clubs" for the world of business.
Contracted farm teams
In the United States and Canada, Minor League Baseball teams operate under strict franchise contracts with their major league counterparts. Although the vast majority of such teams are privately owned and are therefore able to switch affiliation, players remain completely under the control of their affiliated Major League Baseball teams. Minor league teams are usually based in smaller cities and players are typically paid significantly less than their Major League counterparts.
Most major league players start off their careers by working their way up the minor league system, from the lowest (R) to the highest (AAA) classification, with the rare exceptions usually being those players signed from Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball. Jim Abbott, Al Kaline, and Dave Winfield are notable exceptions to this however. This process is formally referred by most MLB teams as "player development." However, minor league affiliates are often informally referred to as "farm teams" and a major league player's misfortune of being sent back to the minors is sometimes described as being "farmed out."
The farm system as it is recognized today was invented by Branch Rickey who – as field manager, general manager, and club president – helped to build the St. Louis Cardinals dynasty during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. When Rickey joined the team in 1916, players were commonly purchased by major league teams from independent, high-level minor league clubs.
Rickey, a keen judge of talent, became frustrated when the players he had scouted at the A and AA levels were sold by those independent clubs to wealthier rivals such as the Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants. With the support of Cardinal owner Sam Breadon, Rickey devised a plan whereby St. Louis would purchase and control minor league teams from Class D to Class AA (the highest level at the time), thus allowing them to promote or demote players as they developed, and "grow" their own talent.
The talent pipeline began at tryout camps that St. Louis scouts conducted throughout the U.S. "From quantity comes quality," Rickey once observed, and, during the 1930s, with as many as 40 owned or affiliated farm teams, the Cardinals controlled the destinies of hundreds of players each year. (The reserve clause then bound players to their teams in perpetuity.)
The Cardinals would win nine National League pennants and six World Series championships between 1926 and 1946, proving the effectiveness of the farm system concept. Indeed, the second club to fully embrace such a system, the New York Yankees, used it to sustain their dynasty from the mid-1930s through the middle of the 1960s. When Rickey moved to the Brooklyn Dodgers as president, general manager and part-owner in 1943, he proceeded to build a hugely successful farm system there as well. Moreover, the teams that ignored the farm system in the 1930s and early 1940s (such as the Philadelphia A's and Phillies and the Washington Senators) found themselves falling on hard times.
The existence of the minor league system is due in part to MLB's ability to include a reserve clause in its contracts with minor league players, which gives the major league team exclusive rights to a player even after the contract has expired. In a landmark 1922 Supreme Court decision, Federal Baseball Club v. National League, baseball was granted a special immunity from antitrust laws. Despite the advent of free agency in 1976, which led many to predict the demise of the farm system, it still remains a strong component of a winning baseball strategy.