If U.S. farm programs are cut or diminished somewhere down the road, one reason will be because agriculture's detractors will have been successful in defining U.S. farm policy as a struggle between the so-called corporate farm and the family farm, the haves and the have nots.
Call me naïve, but I haven't run into many of these corporate farms. In hundreds of farm interviews I've done over the years, I've sat across from weathered, friendly, farm faces, not stiffs in suits. I've conducted farm interviews at kitchen tables and in pickup trucks, never in a boardroom or a high rise.
Big farmers and small farmers (in terms of how many acres they farm) don't seem much different in my estimation. They all work like the dickens, like to hunt and fish, don't mind a little dirt under their fingernails, and no matter how many acres of beans, rice, corn or cotton they farm, most answer their own phone with a very un-corporatelike, “hello.”
But Environmental Defense, the Environmental Working Group and an increasing number of politicians would have us believe that small is synonymous with family farm while large is synonymous with corporate farm. Nothing could be further from the truth. Large operations can be family farms too.
For example, I interviewed a family operation in Arkansas this year that farms 10,000 acres of cotton, by no means a small operation. We sat around the dining room table in their home, which was neither exceedingly small nor large, and talked about farming, faith and family. The farmer has tithed as much 40 percent of his farm income to the church. In addition, he and his wife sponsor nine foreign missionaries. Funny, most of the shareholders in this “corporation” have the same last name.
A husband and wife team I spent some time with last month farm several thousand acres of cotton, but only in recent years did they give up their city jobs to concentrate on expanding the operation. Neither expects a “golden parachute” upon retirement. In fact, both told me with a hint of a smile that they intend to leave the farm horizontally.
Prior to another interview with two brothers who scout quite a bit of cotton, their entire extended family came to dinner and fellowship at the farm shop, where the air was neither conditioned nor stuffy. We ate ribs and chicken cooked on a hand-crafted smoker and enjoyed a sweet concoction called “Strawberry Snow.” The brothers love the “rewards” from being around farming, but drive school busses and teach school for extra income.
The debate over farm programs aside, it's sad that agriculture's detractors have hijacked the concept of the family farm and redefined it in idyllic, Old World terms in order to meet a political objective. But from my view, when it comes to family farms, size doesn't matter.