Response to Bloggers: What is a Family Farm?

According to Webster’s Dictionary (Merriam-Webster, 2006): (a) “farm” as a noun means “a place where something is raised for food” and as a verb means “to raise plants or animals for food”; (b) “family” as a noun means: (1) persons of common ancestry, (2) group living together, (3) parents and children, (4) group of related individuals; (c) “factory” as a noun means “place for manufacturing.”

(A) A blogger suggested that, to qualify as a “family farm”, “the family producers need to slaughter their own cattle.” Thank goodness (for food-safety reasons) “farms” are places where animals are raised and almost never harvested (i.e., cattlemen seldom sell meat – they sell live animals). If the requirement, to be classified as a “family farm”, is that the final food product (i.e., meat) must be manufactured there, my guess would be that less than 00.0001% of farms would qualify.

(B) A blogger thought that “family farmers” were those who produce only enough crops and raise only enough animals to supply the food needed for their immediate families. That, of course, would only be sustainable if the family had off-farm income sources for other living expenses. And, there would be no such thing as “food produced by local, family farmers” available in commerce.

(C) A blogger is correct in saying that the US Census Bureau defines “family farms”, as such, by ownership, not the size of the operation, and in saying that “a family farm can produce tens of thousands of finished beef.” By definition, a “family farm” has no size/scale constraint. The blogger is mistaken in believing that the term “is generally accepted by those using it” as meaning that “the family provides the majority of the labor” and in saying that “If you have 50,000 head and employ 50 hired hands, this is not a family farm.” In truth, neither the US Census Bureau, the dictionary, nor most of the people who use the term, believe that.

(D) A blogger says “I believe that the term ‘factory farm’ has more to do with the methods of production than the strict definition of size. I have seen ‘family farms’ that are run like a factory. Which to me implies that the only consideration is yield/productivity. While this is an important measure, it is only one of many metrics.” The blogger is correct in saying yield/productivity is of concern to farmers because yield/productivity equates to profitability, and because as Russ Parsons (The Los Angeles Times, January 2010) said “Farming, without a financial motive, is called “gardening”. Actually, based on the dictionary definitions of the two words, “factory farms” would be an acceptable descriptive phrase for the operation of farms (small, medium or large; owned by individuals, families, companies or corporations; irrespective of the technologies employed) that are exceptionally well-managed, efficient, profitable and sustainable – except that the phrase was usurped and made into a pejorative by a tiny group of misinformed critics of industrialized agriculture. Norman Borlaug, Father of the Green Revolution, once described opponents of high-yield farming by saying “Those oversophisticated elitists have stars in their eyes; they’ve never produced a pound of food in their lives, yet seem to have all the answers” (Texas Magazine, December 1997). If the blogger’s definition of a “family farmer” is “any farmer who considers factors other than, or in addition to, yield/productivity”, then every farmer I have ever known qualifies.

(E) A blogger says “The term ‘factory’ comes from the concern for the treatment of ‘hired hands’, environmental impacts, animal care, community involvement and product quality.” The blogger paints with a far-too-wide brush to presume that everyone who runs a factory (e.g., a baker, a furniture maker, a clothier, an automobile manufacturer, a farmer), in order to produce more of something, is automatically evil. Where, I would ask, on a size or scale or production-practice continuum, does a “family farm” change to “non-family farm” and become a “factory farm”? I take this personally. My father farmed with a pair of mules, alternate-years’ planting of legumes, and spreading of cow/pig/chicken manure until I was 9-years-old; in 1947, he bought a tractor and over the next few years started to use improved seed, well-bred livestock, feed supplements, pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers (during that same period, the REA brought us electricity – but only after I graduated from high school did my parents have indoor plumbing). Because my father decided to “make a better living”, did it automatically follow that he started to mistreat his hired-man, have greater negative effects on the environment, exploit the hens that produced our eggs, mistreat the cows that produced our milk, be less involved in his church or community, or lower the quality of his farm products? If so, which change did it – i.e., made him into a “factory farmer”? Was it the tractor? The chemical fertilizer? The fact that he had to rent more land in order to survive financially? My wife was a wheat-farmer’s daughter. Her dad must have been a “factory farmer”; he bought tracklayers to replace his 48 draft horses and used herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Since 1955, I have not farmed or ranched because I chose to spend my life doing something else – I wanted to be a teacher. I have never had to, or wanted to, raise my own food and will be eternally grateful to those who raised food for me and the other 26 people in my immediate family. A whole bunch of those who produced that food were “family farmers”; I seriously doubt that any of them was what the critics define as a “factory farmer”.

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