Every few years, agriculture generates a new set of buzzwords. Ten years ago, we spoke of value added and identity preserved. Today, it’s sustainable and factory farming. But the problem with today’s buzzwords are that they’re used and defined and nuanced by folks with an agenda. What’s not sustainable? Anything bigger than me. What’s a factory farm? Anything bigger than me.
It reminds me a bit of a story package we did several years ago, back when the 2002 Farm Bill was up for debate. The idea was to define a family farm. I even wrote a first-person piece for it asking whether my family’s farm counted as a family farm: We’re managed by people who are family. But we farm 2,000 acres. And we operate other businesses on the side. And we hire employees, occasionally. So what are we?
Nearly a decade later and we’re still arguing about what, exactly, is a family farm. It doesn’t help that family farm – like sustainable – has become the favored term, one used by both friend and foe of agriculture to engender sympathy as needed. Take, for example, a press release I received today from HSUS, Friends of the Earth and some coalition of groups with made-up sounding names, like the Association of Irritated Residents. (At first glance, I thought they were irradiated and wondered who was slamming beef now.) The gist of the release is that this coalition has filed a petition with the EPA asking them to “regulate air pollution from factory farms.” A loaded statement if there ever was one, and I’m sure they have some unquantifiable ideas about how to measure that air pollution.
But I digress.
Within the first three graphs, they offered up this quote: "The EPA should hold these big agribusiness corporations accountable for the enormous harm they are inflicting on local communities, independent family farmers, and the environment."
Right. And the difference between the livestock enterprise of a big agribusiness corporation and that of an independent family farmer is what exactly? And who gets to decide? Are 500 sows a family operation, and if you have 506 you’re suddenly a corporation? Say you’re a family farmer raising hogs on contract for Cargill. You’re feeding your family, you’re taking care of your hogs. What are you then? Will the powers that be agree that you’re an “independent family farmer”?
It’s simplistic to suggest we tone down the rhetoric; there’s a lot of money and power at stake in the fight over food and livestock production. But it would be helpful if those of us in production agriculture could quit fighting over who’s a family farmer and who isn’t.
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