Family farmer: Who decides?

By Suzie Wilde

I kiss a family farmer.

Some of the land he farms has been in his family for almost 100 years. He does all the work himself at this point in his farming career, except for harvest time when two or three other folks have to help. Often those are even all family members, including his town-dwelling wife, at times. (I can pack a pretty tight module, if I do say so myself.) But lately I have come to realize that many of those out there who are critics of farming think that the farmer I kiss should not be allowed to be called a family farmer. They think that he has too much land, too many tractors, a barn that is too big… They contend that he is “big ag” or “corporate farming.”

This leads me to look for a definition of any family business. There is a family here in town who owns my three favorite Mexican restaurants. Because they own three restaurants, does that disqualify them from being a family business? Are you only allowed to own one restaurant to be a family business? Can that family hire employees to bus tables or do only family members have to bus tables? If the farmer I kiss only owned one tractor, would the critics then let him be called a family farmer? Sounds a bit bizarre when you put it in these terms, but often bizarre ideas are quicker to float around the social media world than truths and facts.

I recently saw a comment on a blog post which reflected the opinion that most farmland is being farmed by corporations. I cited the EPA’s numbers that show 98 percent of farmers are family farmers. The commenter promptly said that may be so, but those 98 percent only farm 2 percent of the land. He had no information to cite for his numbers, which is pretty common on the Internet. Just make something up and throw it out there. Other facts from USDA show that his comment is completely incorrect.

I have been around farmers and farming since the day I was born. I have yet to personally know some huge, faceless corporation that farms. Where are they? Who are they? So I started looking at all the farmers I know more closely. I do, in fact, know some corporate farmers. I won’t use names, because it’s just plain rude to start talking about folks on the Internet without their permission. But, for example, let’s take a dad and his two sons who farm about 2,500 acres with lots of tractors and plows. They have their operation set up as an LLC, a limited liability corporation. This makes very good business sense, and it provides some protection of their home and personal assets from lawsuits against the LLC. Now, the dad and his sons do 98 percent of all the work. They drive all the tractors, plant all the crops, harvest all the acres (except maybe an extra person or two to build modules at harvest, which most likely is a nephew or the farmer wife they kiss.) But, since the dad and the two sons operate under “Dad & Sons Farms, LLC,” do they no longer get to be considered family farmers? Are they now a huge, faceless corporation? No.

It seems to me that a lot of this labeling or refusing to allow a label may be a reflection of the class warfare being waged in our country. There are those who want to put a limit on what is okay to have or have not. If Farmer One has too many acres, he is too big, he can’t be considered a hard-working family farmer. Is it only Farmer Two, who has a five-acre garden he handpicks himself, who can be considered a hard-working family farmer? Is it really too many acres, or is it that Farmer One appears to be more successful than Farmer Two? I hope our country is not going toward a time when the American dream of running a successful family business of any size will be looked upon as a bad thing.

I have decided to create the definition of a family farmer that will apply to this blog site for the rest of the blog’s life: Family Farmer (noun)–a person or persons growing food, fiber and fuel who are actively engaged in the day-to-day operation and process of growing a crop, regardless of the size of the operation or processes. The person or persons must care for and about the land they use to grow the food, fiber and fuel. They must go about the growing process in a responsible manner, following strict guidelines set forth by the USDA, FDA and EPA.

I kiss a family farmer. Follow our adventures on http://www.facebook.com/KissedAFarmer or http://kissedafarmer.blogspot.com.

Suzie Wilde is the wife of a family farmer. She and her husband, Daniel, farm dryland cotton in the Chihuahuan Desert of Texas. She chronicles the ups and downs of farm life in her blog, Kissed a Farmer.

9 Responses to “Family farmer: Who decides?”

  1. Chuck Jolley says:

    From your fingertips to Mark Bittman’s ears. Not that he’ll comprehend.

    • Gene Hall says:

      I’m sure Mr. Bittman does some good stuff. I’ve heard of him but can’t say I’ve focused too much on him. But, if his or others views of the family farm are much different from Suzie Wilde’s – they are chasing rabbits down a false trail.

  2. Gene Hall says:

    I gave my spot on Texas Ag Talks this week to my friend Suzie Wilde of San Angelo, Texas. She is a real honest to goodness farm wife. Like so many of them, she works off the farm and is an expert on crop insurance. Her blog, Kissed a Farmer, is one of the best places on the web to go for a taste of what real agriculture is like. She tackles head on one of the subjects I’ve been thinking about a lot. Who gets to define a family farmer? Well, we can let the pop culture do it for us, twisting it into something a real farmer would never recognize – or we can wake up, pay attention and start thinking for ourselves. Is “bigness” the only yardstick that matters? Of course it’s not. A family farm is one where the labor is done or directed by a family. It’s one where the decisions on marketing and production are made by a family. By that definition, 97% of ALL U.S. farms are family farms. They can be “small” a word sometimes whispered with reverent religious tones as if should end all arguments on the subject. “Sustainable” is used this way sometimes too. Or these family farms can be very large. But the words and pictures on Suzie’s blog are about a real family farm. I hope you visit her blog often and also come back to Texas Ag Talks for a look at the reality of agriculture.

  3. I don’t think the issue is with size, or number of employees. I think it’s more a concern with people who have personal connections to the land and business, and who view themselves as stewards of the Earth, and who produce products in non-exploitative ways (both environmentally, labor, etc).

    “Family farmers” who operate under contract by Monsanto, for example, are stewarding their land (and our food supply) in a very different way from the independent “family farmer” I buy dairy products and beef from. I don’t care what the acreage is, I care about people with a “family” ethic to their work, our food supply, and this Earth. I understand that the “family farmer” operating under contract to the big guns is simply doing his or her best to get along in this world too–but I hope that buy giving my food dollars to support people able to make independent decisions that are good for our food and good for the planet, that we can shift that balance of power through the free market.

    I don’t see it as a “class warfare” issue, and I’m a little disgusted that you’d paint it as such in an effort to marginalize the concerns of folks who are seeking ethical sources of food. One of my very favorite farms, for example, has a multi-million dollar a year income. I am GLAD to see the folks who do it right be rewarded for their efforts, whether they’re farming one acre or ten thousand. That’s exactly how it should be.

    I’m not miffed if someone has lots of tractors or lots of acreage or lots of money. I’m just interested in supporting those who use their resources for the greatest net good–and not simply for exploiting the land and our food supply for short-term personal, or corporate gain. That’s all.

    • Kate, first thanks for reading. Just to clarify your concerns, we are under no contract of any kind. We choose what we plant, from whom we buy farm products and who we sell our commodities to each and every crop season. I don’t personally know any farmers who are under contract to any corporation, though I assume they must exist since many folks talk about them. We are seriously concerned about our land and how we plan to leave it improved to our grandchildren for them to grow cotton on if they so choose. Hope this helps with your concerns.

  4. Gene Hall says:

    Kate – thanks for posting. There are all sorts of games that can be played with words. For example, when you say, “under contract” to corporations, do you mean that they buy things from them? Somehow your words seemed to convey a darker meaning. I wonder if you meant the pervasive nonsense that often makes the rounds that farmers are somehow indentured servants to corporations? This is not now, nor has it ever been, true. I can take you to farms that you and some of your friends, based on what you’ve been told, would think of as “Big Ag.” Some of them are into their 5th and 6th generation of family ownership. Each generation feels an obligation to protect the land or leave it better than before. Most of them use approved and tested chemicals, some of them use biotech to avoid chemicals. All of them are family farms. None of them are slaves to Monsanto or any other corporation. Now – rule reminder time – and I’m not accusing you of anything. We monitor what is said in this blog for a variety of reasons and one of the things we don’t allow is repetitive and off topic bashing of Monsanto or any other corporation. We are fine so far, but I’ve been there and got the tee shirt. Once it starts, you can’t talk about anything else. The Wildes are family farmers, and so is the one you talked about. There is an avalanche of federal rules for the people of the land. If you comply with those, you don’t have to meet someone else’s definition of political correctness to be a family farmer. And you don’t need to feel guilty for making money at it. I’m glad you pointed that out.

  5. Great story, Suzie!

    Making people take a step back to think about what they think or thought they thought is the only way to really spark meaningful dialogue.

    Agnerds 4 Life!

  6. I know of “contract farmers”, but they are not commodity farmers. They are meat producers, vegetable producers, and some peanut producers. Not a single one of them are under contract to Monsanto beyond the tech agreement we sign before we purchase seed from them. And that has to do with ethical conduct concerning use of their intellectual property. I do think vertical integration–contract farming–is something to be avoided. We know this land intimately and do our best to maximize production in each field while preserving the land for future generations. Technology, such as precision ag, biotech, and new conservation practices, is helping us do a much better job than my granddaddy did. We farm 4700 acres, but are very much a family farm with a sincere love for this land. I love the childhood I am able to gift to my kids by raising them on the farm. Visit my Rondo Farms page to see pics of my family on the farm.

  7. Gene Hall says:

    I know of this practice, Vonda. It is common in some parts of animal agriculture, such as poultry and I believe,pork production. The latter is not that common in Texas. It is simply a transaction (using poultry as the model) where a processing company provides the birds and some inputs while the farm family provides the land, facilities and labor. I suppose there could be some growers unhappy with the arrangement, but most I’ve talked to indicate it works well. Nothing really subversive there. The grower simply agrees to the terms or he/she does not. However, I have seen no evidence in 35 years of walking, talking, visiting with or writing about farmers and ranches that they are in any way held hostage to the interests of corporate American (or the world). The opposite is in fact true. They are fiercely independent.

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