The Small Farm Question

The Small Farm Question

Chris Saladino, APV Agriculture and Food Safety Policy

I am up to my ears in all sorts of research. I do research for a living, I do research for my own interest, and I now do research for APV. Personally, I find research very satisfying because the search for actual facts in this world has been generally abandoned in favor of the process of stitching random bits of information into fully opinionated arguments and calling it the truth. I usually agree with some of these arguments in principle and often despise many of these arguments for the same reason. In short, I have opinions and I like to see when my opinions match others while at the same time I like to get after those who might completely disagree with my opinions. However, I try very hard to avoid saying things like, “the fact that,” “It’s a known fact,” “the real truth is…,” and “it has been proven…,” without showing clear and convincing evidence.

I used to love the X-Files: The Truth is Out There! (Thank you for letting me steal that, Paul Freedman)

However, there is one truth that is a tough nut to crack: it is VERY hard to prove anything in politics. But sometimes that is not as important as we might want to make it.

Some of the more interesting information that I have been gathering has come from farmers. My goal was to talk to actual farmers, and I wanted to specifically target “small farmers.” I wanted to get a broad sense of what small farmers of all types thought about certain ideas, policies, trends, and the future of American farming. I thought I would have some reasonably clear and straightforward definitions and answers, but this was not the case. I was stuck with some problems with operationalizing my terms, right from the start!

Right away I ran into a “fact barrier” as it turns out that there are several definitions of “small farms” floating through the relevant agricultural, academic, and policy literature. After reading the changing definitions and features of small farms in the various federal farms bills, academic articles usually produced from Ag School faculty at large land-grant universities (like Virginia Tech) and other interested parties and institutions, I decided to craft my own consistent operational definition of an American small farm. This is not an idea type but a working definition that I believe reflects the literature effectively enough to work as a variable.

So, generally small farms are defined by size of production (not land) and participation by the land-owners in the actual production. These two components collectively distinguish the difference between small farms and those farm producers who are part of larger agri-business concerns. A small farm typically produces their goods for smaller and local markets; often they are involved in every facet of the market process up to delivery. Many have their own retail outlets via the mechanisms of farm stands, farmer’s markets, co-operatives, local back door commercial delivery, and the rise of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. Regardless of the size of their actual facilities, small farms are seen as typically producing economic output not greater than the costs of land, taxes, inputs, maintenance, labor, and salaries for the owners, with little surplus remaining. Consistently the US government, state farm bureaus, and advocates for small farmers have agreed that small farms are not capital investments. They produce their goods, pay their bills, pay their workers and the remaining profits keep the farmers and their families effectively employed. In the modern small farm model, farmers are the landowners, although in some cases small farms are leased. But they are not part of larger concerns.

So, while I could go on forever on these distinguishing characteristics, it’s not really all that interesting and to use this loose definition allows us to look at a lot small farms that meet those criteria, but are not necessarily similar in other ways.

Something very important to focus on here—small farms STILL constitute about 88% of all the entities that are “farms” in the United States…down from 90% in 2000. MOST FARMS IN AMERICA are SMALL FARMS.

This is hard for some people to believe. In my minimal research, many with a strong interest in this area strongly doubted that even most farms were small farms. Quite a few people interested in working on this research indicated that they strongly believed that small farms had all but disappeared; mostly assuming they have been gobbled up by large agri-business firms. It’s understandable, particularly given that of that nearly 90% of all farms in America, they only contribute about 38% of the agricultural output that is reported. So, the 10% of the farms in America produce 60% of all agricultural goods.

Okay, these are all quasi-interesting pieces of information (dare I say facts) but what’s the point of stating the obvious? Well, two points are driving this post. The first is that it takes a LOT OF TIME to talk to “small farmers” when that is the singular or at least primary criteria for being included in the research. This is me whining: I have to talk to tons of farmers, even though only in the general local area and in the Pungo area of Virginia Beach—the two areas where I limited my focus.

The second point is where I try to make some sense…or not. Farmers are very similar to each other in that they all farm…they work land to raise food, crops, livestock, dairy, eggs, etc. Their daily actions are pretty close…and VERY labor intensive. Farmers all farm. And that is where the similarity ENDS and in some cases, ends hard.

I found an interesting assumption among the Farmer’s Market and Farm Stand crowds I spoke with recently, both here and in Pungo. Many of the people I casually asked (NO IRB!!) believed that most small farms were actively interested in being green, organic, artisanal, even part of the perma-culture movement. I found this interesting because this is a far cry from the traditional view of the American farmer. I remember during the 90’s when President Clinton was trying to pass his Farm Bill (maybe, 1997?) and he introduced a farmer and his family in the gallery during the State of The Union address. Perhaps time has jaded my memory even more unrealistically stereotypical than was the actual case, but the “farmer” was wearing Wrangler jeans, a flannel shirt (it is cold in DC in January!) and a John Deere hat in his pocket. His wife was wearing what I SWEAR was a gingham dress and I think she may have been holding a pie. The son was wearing a baseball hat AND glove and the daughter had a Raggedy Ann doll. Okay, I may have added some of the remembrance (mis-remembering before it was cool!!) but it wasn’t that far off. This traditional idea or vision of the American farmer transcends time…and it exists today, most absolutely. I met several farmers who could have easily been that family.

But they aren’t what many people think.

First of all, many of them are conservative. AAAAUUUUUGGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!! Three farmers I spoke to in Hanover County, Caroline County, and Virginia Beach, all had McCain-Palin bumper stickers on their trucks… (2 Chevy’s and 1 Ford, NO DODGES, sorry) One had a great interest in talking politics to the extent that I had to leave the conversation by saying that I taught about the United Nations…this is like a loud fart in church, be careful. I was not interested in their ideological cores, but I wanted to know about their commitment to their way of life as a part of the broader economy, of things like the healthcare act, tax policy, and the extent that the state and federal government do or do not care about small farms. I also wanted to know about their commitment to moving to more sustainable methods, organics, etc. I got lots of opinions, and they leaned hard in some directions. Every farmer I spoke with was not a conservative, but more than half leaned that way. I didn’t hear a lot of praise for President Obama.

Not only are small farmers not all earthy progressives, quite a few of them were not entirely committed to being totally organic. Pardon my double negativity, but isn’t this STRIKE TWO? Ultimately, I will contend that this is really not a problem at all, but let’s get to the reasons. The good news is that every one of the farmers I spoke to (so far I have talked to about 24 farms) had no real faults or issues with what I called “sustainable agriculture,” and most embraced the general ideas behind the term (another blog) and even noted that it was in their interest to be “sustainable.” However, there was a clear division between those farmers who fully set out to be organic farms (and therefore, certified organic as determined by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture) and/or valued this as a priority and those farmers who essentially argued that they would do “whatever was best for the crop, the land, the customers, my workers, and my bottom line.” I appreciated that last statement so much I wrote it down.

The best explanation sort of incorporated the following ideas:

·Organic is great, but we are not quite ready to lose or abandon certain crops in that pursuit

·We’ll do whatever we can to meet certain standards, but not at the cost of the quality of the product (this was LOUD in the berry farmers)

·Being organic is not easy in terms of making the switch

·We are noticing a demand for organic goods and the market will turn us in that direction more than “doing the right thing”

·Most have crops that are fully organic but others that still require them to use more traditional methods

·ALMOST ALL (save one) said that their current use of pesticides, fertilizers, and life-extenders were decidedly “greener” and more sustainable than they had been in the past.

·Most of the farmers were willing to try anything to improve productivity, combat the effects of drought, and increase their markets.

Strike Three: ALL FARMERS were motivated by profit. AAAUUUGGGHHH. They don’t just do it to be on the land. PLEASE don’t get me wrong, many of the people I talked to were amazingly committed to best practices, organic and sustainable farming and ranching, and to cooperative measures to help out with community needs, charitable contributions, and to educating the public on everything from composting to vegetarianism. But even these farmers had land notes and equipment to pay for, workers to compensate, and mouths to feed and send to college. In short, from right to left, these farmers are working for a living. They need to make a reasonable profit or they will lose their land or do something else.

So…the diversity among the farmer’s political views was vast, but their practices and their goals were similar. They embraced different methodologies but did not reject similar paths towards their ultimate ends.

And we MUST support ALL OF THEM. We must support small farms. Even ones that buy their corn seed from Cargill or Monsanto, even ones that have yet to fully embrace organic methods, and even ones that have McCain bumper stickers on their trucks.

Many of you think we should reward those small farmers who think and believe explicitly in our “progressive” vision of the world and avoid those that disagree. I disagree with that approach because they are not wrong. We are not right. I want to think we are, but I want to support “small farms.” Supporting “SMALL FARMS” is progressive…most of you have told me this. We need to support small farms. But we don’t need to have a litmus test or ideological pledge when buying summer squash and sugar baby watermelons; at least we should limit our selection based on the actual goods they sell, more than their politics. And NO, I am not saying we should start sucking down excessive amounts of chemicals and GMO’s, because these are NOT the great abusers of those inputs.

Honestly, I am no more willing to boycott a vegetable stand with amazing Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes grown 6 miles away than I am to boycott the best surgeon in the area when my child needs an operation, just because of who those people voted for. When it comes to small farms, unless we know that we are dealing with terrible people, they are part of our concern for our local agricultural economy. And all small farmers are part of the local economy. They (all of them) need more protection by the federal government than do the huge conglomerates, the ADMs, Monsanto’s, Dow’s, and Cargills. They need a farm bill that promotes grants and aid for moving to organics, for green energy technology, and for tax breaks for working with local schools and food distribution charities. We need to support them so they will continue to provide an effective alternative to mass produced, low quality, highly preserved foods. How they do this will vary, but we can also help to move them all in a better and more sustainable direction. Distinguishing which small farms are worthy is a personal market choice, but as a policy perspective, we need to support the existing “small farms,” all of them, so they don’t disappear.


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