Update: March, 2015:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that family-owned farms remain the backbone of the agriculture industry. The latest data come from the Census of Agriculture farm typology report and help shine light on the question, “What is a family farm?”
June 24, 2013—This Wallaces Farmer article visits a USFRA Food Dialogues gathering to consider what the definition of a farmer is. The blog below also addresses this topic.
Maybe a Real Farm Can’t Be Defined
No one asked me to define the term “family farm” when I was a kid, but my answer would have been quick and assured—“That’s where everybody chores in the barn and plays in the pastures. It’s at the end of the lane where the yellow bus drops us off after school, where the front door is open and the yard light is always on.”
One day in second grade, the teacher asked the students to raise their hands if they lived in town. Two did. The other twenty or so of us lived on farms outside the small Iowa town. If a teacher did the same today, the proportion of hands raised would be reversed.
Some organizations and agencies proudly point out that 90-some percent of farms are family owned. That’s great, but I imagine that includes everything from urban hobby farms to long-distance landlords to mega farms with thousands of pigs and fields flowing to the horizon.
Last weekend I asked several locals to define a family farm. They agree that times have changed, with tech and new practices making agriculture bigger and more efficient. “That’s the reality. It’s basically good.” But they seem reluctant to lump them all into the family farm category. A family farm? The answers were more feeling than fact:
- “It’s where the people who work the land live on it.”
- “You’ll know it when you see it—or maybe I should say, you’ll know it when you work it.”
- “It doesn’t matter so much about the size. It’s the spirit of the place. A family farm has a certain attitude—and it’s gotta have a dog or two.”
- “A family farm is the type I’m farming.”
A young woman majoring in agriculture at Iowa State University works part time in our office, and she spent last weekend visiting her parents, six siblings, and 350 milk cows on a small farm in eastern Iowa. When I asked her to define a family farm, she immediately replied, “Just come home with me for a weekend. You’ll see.”
It’s a matter of perspective, and there is room for a wide range of farms just as there is a need to hear from the variety of voices that make up modern-day agriculture. One way to do that is to avoid screaming headlines, slanted opinions, and dubious statistics.
I’ve run across quite a few blogs and essays lately that call for reason and cooperation. One site comes from Michele Payn-Knoper. In her Gate to Plate blog, “Yes Farming is Personal, but
…,” she seems to value all types of farms, and she emphasizes the need for authentic, positive voices telling the story of agriculture.
Just as I’m not certain how to define a family farm, I’m not completely sure how to define “authentic ag voices.” I guess you just know them when you hear them. by dan gogerty (photo from ars/usda)