Friday, April 9, 2010

Family Farming

There's an article from the Fed reviewing the history of hog raising in the USA. It may surprise some people to read:

Family farms spearhead technological change

As labor became scarcer and more expensive in agriculture, hog production became dramatically more capital intensive even within the context of relatively small family farms. Many farmers are amused when nonfarm opponents of large operations charge that total confinement of animals in environmentally controlled buildings, handling of waste as a liquid, use of antibiotics at subtherapeutic levels in feed, and genetic selection for narrow production-related characteristics are all consequences of corporate agriculture. In reality, all were initiated on or by family farms in the 1950s and 1960s.

Many people assume that a family farm (a family owned and work by a family) necessarily operates in a more traditional and somehow "better" way than a corporate farm.

In the USA, something like 98% of all farms are family farms. Therefore, empahsizing that your farm is a family farm doesn't say much. When people hype the "family farm-y" quality of their farm, I get suspicious.

For instance, I was asking a guy today, who works for a big pork company, what makes his pork different from the pork of other big pork companies. He explained that his company's pork is produced by family farmers, while that of his competition might or might not be.

Most tellingly for me, he didn't talk about things like breed, feed, how they raise the pigs, etc. Hence, I can't imagine that you can taste the difference between his stuff and his competitor's.

To the extent that consumers pay more for identical things just because a salesperson says one was produced via a more virtuous process, all they are doing is encouraging fraud.

The ownership structure of a farm is orthogonal to how the farm operates.

For instance, Hutterites live and farm in religious communes. They wear traditional clothing. Their farms are all family farms - in the sense that they are worked by the families who own them. What could be more "family farm-y" than a bunch of families living and working on their own farm?

Yet, the Hutterites have been famous for decades for embracing innovation. Because they live communally, they pool their money and buy the newest farm equipment, instead of things like personal autos, electronics, etc. For example, some Hutterites produce pork. When they talk about their pigs, they don't show pigs - they show the control panel of their state-of-the-art hog building. They obviously have a very modern farm.

I'm not attacking them for having a modern farm. However, whenever people talk about how their "family farm" produces something, I figure they are trying to sell me something. I'd prefer if they just talked about their products and their relative merits, instead of trying to monetize their ownership structure.

For example, here's some info about the organization the Hutterite pork producers mentioned above sell to. I've emphasized the "family farm" wording below:
Our Sustainable Family Farm Partnerships produce Salmon Creek Farms Natural Pork products that will tantalize and excite your taste buds! Our Family Farm Partners have generations of farming and livestock experience. Their entrepreneurial spirit combined with their commitment to the land and livestock they cherish will guarantee your enjoyment of Salmon Creek Farms Natural Pork!
That marketing blurb is funny: the fact that the people making the pork are entrepreneurs and devoted to their land and livestock is going to guarantee my enjoyment of their product? So if we could just get them to be more entrepreneurial, and more concerned about land and animals, the meat would be that much more enjoyable?

My understanding is that if they are devoted to quality, that's what counts. E.g. if a rich guy buys the pigs with the best genetics and feeds them to produce the best meat and fat, he's going to produce the best. It doesn't matter that he's paying staff to do the dirty work. He doesn't need to love the land or animals to make food that tastes good; he just needs to love producing food that tastes good, and be willing to spend what it costs to produce it.

Other farmers, richer or poor, can love the land all they want, be even more entrepreneurial or shovel the pig poop themselves - they can't beat the guy who pigheadedly does what it takes to produce the best tasting stuff.


Gorges Smythe said...

Gee, you mean all that firewood that my family sold over a 50-60 year time preiod didn't burn better because it was "hand split"? Shucks; now ya tell me!

Gorges Smythe said...

Gosh, you mean "hand splitting" the firewood that my family sold for 50-60 years didn't make it burn any better? NOW ya tell me!

Heath Putnam said...

Gorges - Another point though: as with pigs, it would be small timber farms (undoubtedly "small timber family farms") that would be the first to innovate and build splitters, so that they could avoid having to do everything manually.