Get on your phone, search your favorite social media site, or even turn on Netflix, and you can quickly find something labeling today’s agriculture as corporate, factory farming or “big ag.” While I agree that farming is a business, and a big business for Mississippi (the biggest, in fact, in terms of revenue), what my eyes witness every day is far from a factory. The statistics show that 96%+ of farms are family owned, which accounts for almost 90 percent of value produced in U.S. agriculture. Those statistics only grow higher for Mississippi specifically.
How do you see agriculture? If your idea of the family farm is Little House on the Prairie or your great-grandfather’s pea patch you played in as a kid, then, yes, agriculture may seem a bit more corporate in 2018. But as much as it is not Laura Ingles Wilder’s scenes, it is also not a protocol, a clock-in/clock-out job. Farming for most ag industry professionals in Mississippi is their life, lifestyle and livelihood.
“Agriculture is their life” is what I witness most vividly from the livestock industry. Dairy farmers, poultry producers and catfish growers rarely take vacations. These men and women (and often their children) are tending to the needs of animals first. Yes, this is all in an effort to produce a better product, but it is also to care for another living thing. Farm life is also a connection to the land. Farm families’ lives often revolve around caring, managing and utilizing the ground they have purchased, inherited or rented. That land, those animals are a major part of their life.
“Agriculture is their lifestyle” is also what I witness among our farm Bureau members. These men and women are also involved in organizations like Farm Bureau and in livestock shows, rodeos, furthering their education, charitable activities and many other things that agricultural industry people do that make farming more than just their job.
Most often misunderstood by the consuming public is that “agriculture is a livelihood.” While the two aforementioned pieces are important for farmers through life and lifestyle, without the ability to make a living, no farmer can sustain a long-term connection to this industry. There are numerous factors that have changed how farmers accomplish this mission in 2018, but I will highlight just a few that could be seen as corporate.
First, it is true more farmers are “incorporated” today than in the past. However, this could be said for most small business. With today’s complicated tax structure; liability both internally and from outside sources; and also being able to maintain structure between generations leads many small businesses to ‘incorporate.’ While praised as wise management in other industries, this has been perceived as dastardly for the farming community. While this might change a little paperwork and the title of some family farms, it is vastly still husbands and wives, sons and daughters, cousins, uncles and other family coming together to run their business.
Growth in size of farming machinery, amount of land a producer operates, and less crop diversity on each farm have also played into public perception of “big ag.” I would argue this is simply a result of tighter profit margins for most. With little change in the price received for their products over decades and with exponential growth in input costs, the amount of money one can make off of a single acre has become very thin. To make ends meet, maintain enough assets to borrow money on, and many other factors involved with the business decisions a farmer makes, the only option is to take that thin margin and multiply it over more acres. With more acres comes the need to be more efficient. More efficiency means covering more acres in less time. Result: larger equipment that specializes in certain crops across larger tracts of land. This is not greedy boards of directors dictating management decisions, rather families growing the scale of their business to meet the income needs in today’s society.
Lastly, agricultural trade and workforce often take public scrutiny. Every farmer I work with would love to hire local and sell local; however, this is no longer a viable practice in most farming areas of the country. With more urbanization and higher efficiency in food processing, a majority of farmers now make a raw product for a global market. Not only are there not enough local consumers wanting raw goods, there are not enough willing workers to produce them. Farmers are more frequently importing labor to export their goods as a reaction to the labor market and consumer market.
Again, this is simply what I witness in my travels and interactions with the farming community. And it is just that, a community. Over 96% of the farmers in this country are your neighbors, deacons in your church, people beside you in the grocery store. They are business owners, both large and small. As these farmers work to provide for their family’s prosperity and security, remember that by doing so, they are providing the same for our nation.