During the recent Superbowl, in some midwestern regions agricultural interest groups aired commercials with titles like “We are the 96%.” The goal was to promote more understanding among the public that the majority of farms in America are family farms. Polls indicate that most people believe that most farms are corporate-owned, and the perception of corporate farming is decidedly negative, so the ag groups were trying to rebuild public trust in farming as a virtuous, family-centric institution.
But I wonder, does the high rate of family ownership tell us anything truly meaningful about the merits of farming in America? And does that give us any hope for the claims that this gives us the “most sustainably grown, healthiest food anywhere?” I’d contend that the framing of the issue of family farming is a misdirection, distracting us from the important places where family farmers have lost ownership within our agricultural system. I believe strongly in family farming, but within the current agricultural framework I don’t think that we can point to family management structures and reassure ourselves that this is sufficient to give us the outcomes we’d like to see.
What Does Family Owned Mean?
Let’s look at what we really mean when we speak about family ownership, because I suspect that there are a lot of ideas being jumbled up in our collective understanding.
When a farm is family owned, it means that the particular farming operation is owned by a sole proprietor or some form of family partnership. This is the ownership structure for our farm and for almost every farm I know, so I’d agree with the 96% number quoted above. This would be the case with all sorts of farming operations, whether they focus on horticulture, livestock, or some combination of the two. Ownership is really just about the people listed on the tax records.
But when we picture a family farm in our minds, I think we are imagining more than just the ownership structure, more than just asking the question of who’s name is on the list of the farm’s LLC filing documents. Instead, we’re conjuring the pictures in the children’s storybooks we grew up with. We see the ruddy-cheeked farmers in the foreground, with their cows and chickens all around them, a foursquare farmhouse and a big red barn off to the side, and rolling hills with grain growing all the way out to the distant mountains. That’s the family farm we have in our minds. That’s a compelling image, and it is misleading. A farm may be a family farm, not a corporate farm, and yet that family farm may be entirely bound up by corporate interests controlling ownership of everything essential to their farming enterprise.
The Other Important Ownerships
Family farm ownership can be important, but there are other aspects to ownership that are also critical in creating a safe, durable food system. I’d like to cover three other aspects to ownership that would be more meaningful as markers of a healthy agricultural system: land ownership, production ownership, and marketing ownership.
Land Ownership. A family farm may or may not own the land it farms. Increasingly, with private equity and corporate investment gobbling up farmland, fewer farmers actually own the land they farm. The paradigm is shifting toward tenant farming. This is an important topic worthy of its own discussion, so I will probably follow up on this in the future. But it deserves some mention here. It is often asserted that farmers will be motivated to do the best for their land because they own it, and that this ownership connects us to the idea of environmental stewardship. I could argue that some people wantonly destroy their own land, contrary to their self-interest. But I’ll broadly agree that most farmers would prefer to pass on well-tended land to a future generation, and that they don’t want their legacy to be one of diminishment. So there is a question to be posed here: if farmers are shifting to tenancy instead of ownership, what is the likelihood that they will tend the land with as much care as they would if it were their own? Despite the most noble intentions, the reality of the incentive structure shifts farmers away from long-term stewardship and inevitably orients them toward short-term extraction and exploitation. [Note, I will grant that there are some excellent examples of tenant farmers successfully working with landlords, so I’m not criticizing every land rental situation. But as a rapidly growing trend, I am concerned about the effect this will have on the overall relationship of farmers to the land.]
Production Ownership. Throughout farming, but egregiously in animal agriculture, family farmers own very little of the real production of their farms. This is the case in dairy and beef operations, but it is most firmly entrenched within the poultry and hog industries. A chicken or pig farmer often does not own the animals on the farm. The farmer builds a barn to the specifications of the “integrator”, i.e., the meat company. The integrator then fills the barn on the schedule they determine appropriate, often also supplying all the feed, and then sends a truck around at the end of the grow-out period to pick up the fully-grown animals to truck them to slaughter. The farmer supplies the labor for daily chores and the cleanup at the end of the production cycle. But there’s no say over the production, and in reality, the farmers’ only real ownership in the production cycle is that they own the debt on their barns. These farmers can’t even feed themselves from their own farms, as everything they raise must be hauled off, to be mixed anonymously into the giant pool of chicken or pork to be distributed into the food system.
Market Ownership. Most family farms have little to no meaningful choice in how they market their production. Even for farmers who aren’t part of the integrator system mentioned above, the buyers for their products have artfully arranged themselves into monopolistic and monopsonistic configurations, so there are very few options for marketing. If the price of corn or calves or cabbage is low, there aren’t many options for getting a better price. Farmers are usually in the position of being price-takers, accepting whatever price the market is paying, even if that price is ruinously low. Just having family farm ownership does nothing to protect that family from the vicissitudes of wild market fluctuations. With no access to a market that rewards farmers for quality or for other production values, the only option is to aim for the highest yield and to hope that the big bets pay off. A couple of bad years can be enough to bankrupt these family farms.
In each of these cases, a family may still own the farming operation, but that family has little control over the land, the products, or the sales from their farming. The VCs and corporate boards own all the important aspects, and the family only holds onto the risk. There is no equity in this arrangement.
Creating a Better Farm
I don’t have any bones to pick with the farming family featured in the Super Bowl advertisement at the beginning of this article. I haven’t met them, and for all I know, they might check all the boxes for ownership that I mentioned. I’m certainly glad to see how they work together as a group. It is commendable that their kids are connected to a purpose in life on the farm. I’m sure I’d enjoy spending time with them, touring their operation and then drinking coffee around the kitchen table. I’m certain I could learn plenty of things from them. I hope that they all do well, and that as a family they will continue to enjoy each other’s company and to enjoy the work they do each day. So this isn’t about knocking anyone who fits under the broad (and somewhat contrived) appellation of “conventional farming.” But I don’t think we can blithely quote the statistic that 96% of farms are family owned, while showing pictures of a happy family, and then follow that with reassurance to the public to feel confident in the state of American agriculture.
Back when Rachel and I were beginning to feel the urge to farm, we didn’t see all these things quite so clearly as we now do. So I can’t claim that family ownership, land ownership, production ownership, and market ownership were all so much at the forefront of our thinking. But we were feeling our way toward an understanding of each of these aspects, growing over time in our realization of how each would connect and create a farm that could truly thrive.
We own just under 100 acres, a smaller-than-average farm. For the foreseeable future, we don’t have any local prospects for owning or for leasing additional land. Owning the land we farm gives us the freedom to invest into the land for the long term, often in ways that don’t increase the market value of the land. We’re investing to increase the soil organic matter and to reinvigorate the water cycle, things we count as long term value but projects that don’t get much recognition from the real estate market. Owning the production means that we have control over all the animals on our farm, and that we can raise them to our standards without having to place ourselves into debt or obeisance to the major meatpackers. And lastly, owning the marketing gives us the flexibility to distribute our products directly to the people who want to eat our food, the same people who truly value our food. We can set our prices at levels that give the farm enough margin to support our family and to allow us to choose better options, like Certified Organic feeds, even when those options are more expensive.
I’m not willing to state that every farm must be identical to ours in an ideal world. But I am asserting that there should be more to ownership other than just family farm ownership in that putative ideal world. We’d also have to talk more about land ownership, product ownership, and market ownership. If 96% of farms had most of these more meaningful categories of ownership on their side, then we would have something worth bragging about in Superbowl commercials.