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Overregulation Hurts Small and Medium Sized Family Farms First

Overregulation Hurts Small and Medium Sized Family Farms First
Those who favor heavy-handed regulation to hurt big farm operators actually hurt smaller family farmers first and the most.

I hear it all the time. Those who hate big farms and big farmers go to policy makers hoping that tight regulations will hurt the big guys and “level the playing field” for smaller, more “sustainable” operators. Some folks buy into this concept, but in my opinion there are a lot of serious problems with this strategy.

We live in a capitalistic, free enterprise country. Making money is not against the law, and it is what makes our economy tick. Some folks seem mortified by this fact. But, profit is not a dirty word, and it shouldn’t be. I’m not sure how else we are supposed to run our farming businesses and take care of our families if we are not in it for profit.

Being a big farmer doesn’t necessarily mean that the producer is a bad neighbor, hates his animals and mistreats the environment. No matter what the urban media likes to hype, these kinds of things are not necessarily size specific. I’ve seen large farmers who do a wonderful job of animal husbandry, even on farms that have huge, concentrated numbers. I’ve known large operators who care about the environment deeply and use every financial resource possible to carry out practices that respect and replenish Mother Nature. In the same vein, I’ve known small farmers who do not necessarily care about either of these issues and are really bad actors for the industry. So, it seems to me that good livestock and environmental stewardship depends more on the individual in charge than on the number of acres or number of livestock they care for.

Also, it is difficult for most people to explain their definition of a large farm or “factory farm” as they like to call them, compared to the seemingly more palatable small or medium family operation. The definition is fuzzy and undefined. This is part of the problem with these kinds of policy strategies. They are not based on facts, but emotion and myths.

I know several large farms that are operated by multi-generational families, with several families involved in managing the farm or ranch. These days, there are economic benefits to pooling resources and buying power into a single operation, to facilitate better management of input costs and better marketing opportunities for products, including livestock and crops. Are these farms part of what some folks consider evil “big farms?”

Getting to my point, if regulation is one of the tools to limit expansion of large farms and ranches, the fact is that it simply doesn’t work that way. Without getting into any specific regulatory policies, it has been my experience that regulations in a general sense hit the operations that can least afford to accommodate them first and hardest. They don’t have the resources or the economies of scale to deal with overregulation, additions to infrastructure or extra red tape and paperwork required. This has been a great deterrent for young farmers coming into agriculture. They don’t want to deal with all of the regulations. They just want to farm.

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Regulation has a time and a place. Certainly, bad actors are the reason why it is necessary to protect consumers and natural resources from their careless actions. But if policy makers are trying to somehow use overregulation to deter large farm expansion, I believe this strategy has the opposite impact. It kills small and medium sized operations first and it deters young people from their ambitions to start farming.

Depending upon the regulation and industry sector, several policy developments over the past few years seem aimed at killing small diversified farmers, farmers' market vendors and farmers raising local food.

If you rely on sweat equity, you have little time or extra money laying around for unnecessary paperwork, additional infrastructure and monitoring systems and dealing with every little job that is not making you a profit, but merely keeping you in the game. Profit is the only way to attract new people into agriculture and maintain families on the farm. I believe we should let those families farm as best they can and not overdo it with regulations. Families living on and working their land for generations probably know what is best for their livestock, natural resources, customers and farm enterprises or they wouldn’t still be there every day keeping their operations going strong.

Here is this week's discussion question. Are there regulations that are over-burdensome, costly and unnecessary to your operation? You can share your observations here.

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