Monday, April 29, 2013

It just won't die...  

The Corporate Farming Myth seems indestructible by hard data or even reason.  I was reading about how ag singles groups are shrinking and came across this paragraph:
Single farmers face an especially difficult task finding others like them. In recent years, many farm families have sold out to corporations and moved away; the rural population has been gravitating to the cities, leaving small towns to wither, cafes to close, social organizations to decline. Meeting people is harder than ever. [More][My emphasis]
Somewhere along the line the concept of large farms merged with corporate. Simply put, big must mean non-family. But this is exactly what isn't happening.
Most U.S. farms—98 percent in 2007—are family operations, and even the largest farms are predominantly family run. Large-scale family farms and nonfamily farms account for 12 percent of U.S farms but 84 percent of the value of production. In contrast, small family farms make up most of the U.S. farm count but produce a modest share of farm output. Small farms are less profitable than large-scale farms, on average, and their operator households tend to rely on off-farm income for their livelihood. Generally speaking, farm operator households cannot be characterized as low-income when both farm and off-farm income are considered. Nevertheless, limited-resource farms still exist and account for 3 to 12 percent of family farms, depending on how “limited-resource” is defined.[More]
I think what has happened is farms have been conflated with what most of us would call agribusiness. An amazing number of people I have met think ADM and Monsanto run and even own farms. They also assume large operations have deep operational ties with those links in our chain. 

How did this occur? One contributing factor, I think has been our profession's reluctance to be seen as anything other than an agrarian, diversified and nostalgic businesses. We were perhaps rightly afraid of losing public sympathy by showing enormous operations without any puppies or duckies and children bottle feeding calves.

That has changed somewhat, but we are still pretty shy about embracing the large operation as our stereotype. And we are horrified at the idea Joe Taxpayer might discover how freakin' much money we have been making.

This may prove a tactical mistake, as the above article suggest. The connection between "big" and "corporate" is now pretty well fixed in the public mind and being exploited by small farm proponents from local food to organic. The sympathy ploy may have lost its effectiveness.


Dave said...

John I agree with some of your statements and whatever you were quoting; for example the statement "many farm families have sold out to corporations and moved away" is very true and has been for 20-30 years or more. I do think the definition of "small" farms needs to be addressed. Way too many of these are, in fact, people in suburbia with 5 acres and a horse that call themselves "farmers" for the tax benefits. That really is a not even a hobby farm and should be cut off.
On the other hand I also don't think there is a great difference between a large farm (500-600+ ac) and a small (50-150 ac) on profitablity. When the small farm is really trying. I am a small farmer (under 100ac) and am being successful at making the farm support itself (because of the size gross profits make it difficult with equipment purchases). When I compare to a neighbor (1000+ac) I don't see a difference in per ac profits. My place is sized to what I personally can do on weekends, my neighbor is keeping himself and his son working and their wives are working to provide living expenses and some financial cushion.
Our industry has not yet got it's house in order to where we are not controlled by input vendors, equipment vendors and banks. When we get the industry to where the majority of real farmers are controlled by these vendors then and only then will farming be successful. It appears to me that farmers were in that place in the period before the 1930's depression but somehow we lost it.

From Virginia said...

I sat in a focus group once in Des Moines where the group decided anyone with more than 100 acres or 100 animals was a corporate farm. Further, several went on to say that you could identify corporate farms that grew corn by the signs along the road that said Pioneer or DeKalb (they believed the signs indicated Pioneer or DeKalb owned the field). Such is the thinking of much of America.

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