Sunday, August 30, 2009

What's a Family Farm?

The term "family farm" is inclusive: ninety-eight percent of all farms in the U.S. are family farms., according to the USDA.

Curious people might wonder just what forms a family farm can take, and if 98% of all farms are family farms, why does one hear the term "family farm" so much? Isn't that like talking about "white swans" instead of just "swans", or "cute hamsters" instead of just "hamsters"?

The basic definition of a family farm is, according to the USDA, a farm without a hired manager and a farm not owned by a non-family corporation or non-family cooperative. That definition, isn't very clear, because it doesn't so much say what a family farm is as what it isn't.

Obviously, a collective farm is not family a farm, unless it is a family collective. A farm with a hired manager is not a family farm; that excludes plantations or estates owned by absentee landlords.

Hence, the definition is about ownership and control, not size or biodiversity. In our age of capital intensive farming, where technology allows a few people to run a huge farm, family farms can be huge enterprises. In order to support a big family, a farm has to be very big.

Family Enterprise

Here's one video showing a diversified family farm in Ohio: cattle, pigs, soybeans, etc. They've got their own tractor trailers. That's sounds big - yet some other family enterprises make them look insignificantly small.

Small Family Farm Raising Pigs

Here's another family farm, where they raise a lot of pigs. Raising the pigs in modern buildings allows a small number of people to look after their pigs. They've probably got hundreds of sows.

The family farms shown in the video may not fit the typical person's idea of a family farm - but that's inevitable. American agriculture is so efficient, only 2% of the population farms. The other 98% get to live their lives without direct experience of farms. They also get to mostly live without direct experience of chiggers, runaway vehicles and lethal gases.

Despite not having contact with farming, a lot of the remaining 98% have emotional attachments to the concept of "family farms" - even if they don't have that same emotional attachment to other family-owned and operated businesses.

For example, despite the fact that a cheese-making dairy and a natto-making company might both buy soybeans and transform them (either through cows or bacteria) into food for humans, most people will have more "warm and fuzzy" feelings about the dairy, its cows and the family running it than they will about (respectively) the natto compay, bacteria and the family running it.

Although that is a purposefully contrived example, consider goat-fiber business versus a silkworm-fiber business. I suspect most people would feel "warm and fuzzy" about a family running goats, harvesting their fiber and making yarn from it than they would about a family feeding silkworms mulberry leaves, getting the fiber and then making silk thread. The presence of cute bleating goats makes the first famers a "real" family farm, while the other people are arguably bug exploitation experts. Of course, a dairy farmer tired of dealing with a bunch of irritating goats might think the silkworm operation looks pretty slick; you wouldn't have to deal with the goats every day of the year.

None of this relates directly to Mangalitsa pigs, Mangalitsa pork, etc - the typical topic of this blog. I got to thinking about these issues because I saw the Ohio Pork Tour videos (the two from above) and it brought to mind the fact that the vast majority of farms (98%!) in the USA are family farms, even though they take such varied forms.

1 comment:

JuneBug said...

A family farm or a white swan might naturally go together but a cute hamster, well a rat is a rat to some people.