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Will the Real Farmer Please Stand Up?


The other day a memo came my way that described many of the famers in our valley in Virginia. This was a reference made by a visitor who spends a few days of rest and relaxation in the valley each month, visiting and observing the farmers throughout the year. The bottom line to the memo was that most of the farmers in our valley were described as part-time producers supplemented by off-farm income and wealth who are enjoying the country. Only one farmer in the valley was designated a “true” or “real” farmer making a living from the farm.

That memo made me ponder about the definition of a “real” farmer or rancher today and in the future.  Many of my neighbors and I fit the part-time producer description. Yes, there is the doctor who keeps bees and has locally grown beef; two retirees who run beef cows; and a young couple comprising a teacher and a blue collar worker who operate a beef and hay business. One neighbor has a large horse boarding and riding business. Of course, we raise dairy heifers and cows, and sell products through a value-added creamery.

If one compares this description to national aggregations of the 2 million producers nationwide, we are in good company with the 70% who would fit the classification described above; that is, they operate a farm with dependence on non-farm income. This is compared to the 30% of farms and ranches that are traditional and larger, more complex businesses that generate a large share of agricultural production nationwide.

Today’s and tomorrow’s agriculture is not “one size fits all.” It is a combination of all the above, some being organic, natural and local, while others are more traditional operations, focusing on efficiency while maintaining effectiveness. Yes, there is also a place for the larger, more complex business with the size and scale to be competitive in the global marketplace.

Referring back to the memo, perception is sometimes reality, but in this case the producer mentioned in the memo as the “real” or “true” farmer is also reliant on off-farm income. He chuckled when finding out about his designation, and said, “I guess I fooled him!”

Editor’s note: Dave Kohl, Corn & Soybean Digest trends editor, is an ag economist specializing in business management and ag finance. He recently retired from Virginia Tech, but continues to conduct applied research and travel extensively in the U.S. and Canada, teaching ag and banking seminars and speaking to producer and agribusiness groups. He can be reached at [email protected]

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