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family farmbannerWhen I lived in the Midwest, all I could think about was leaving it and the great wide world that was my oyster.  I barely paid attention to the intricacies of what was going on around me, because I just took it all for granted.  When I had been on the East coast for about two weeks, I went to a concert with my brand-new Jewish Friend, and we got to discussing where we come from.

“What did your grandfather do?” she asked.

“He was a farmer.” I told her.

“Mine was a Cantor.”

Then we sat there for a bit, marveling at how completely different our lives were.

“What’s a Cantor?” I asked.

“What did he farm?” she asked.

And therein lives the problem.  I actually had no idea what my grandfather, the farmer, farmed.  We never talked about that, we didn’t spend a huge amount of time with that side of the family, and I just never asked.  I always assumed that my other grandfather was a farmer as well, because he lived on a farm, had a lot of tractors and a huge garden.  Now I’m starting to suspect he was just a hobbyist.

The reason that I keep thinking about all of these things, is because I am friends with a lot of people who are interested in local food.  I’ve been to see King Corn, I’m reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Jewish Friend won’t shut up about The Omnivore’s Dilemma etc.  Then I’m called upon to tell people how it really is, or at least is where I’m from–and I got nothing.  I can certainly speculate, but when people start asking pointed and informed questions, I crumple like origami.

I was talking to a friend the other day about this and she asked what we grew in Cavalier, ND. “Sugar beets, mostly.” I told her.

“How do you get sugar out of a beet?” she asked.  Naturally, I had no idea, even though I grew up eating  beet sugar exclusively, so I changed the subject and told her about how we sandbagged the American Crystal Sugar plant during the 1997 flood.  I could have turned the conversation around and asked her a lot of questions about orange juice (she’s from Florida), but she probably would have known the answers.

My parents were not farmers, so even though farming was a part of our daily lives by proxy, we never really thought about it.  My father helped out occasionally with sugar beet harvest, because the entire town did, but that’s about it.  I grew up sitting on my grandfather’s tractors, not really understanding how they worked–and I still don’t know if he actually used them, though I suspect he scaled back his operation just before I was born.

One person who does actually know firsthand about this is my dear friend Mtanga.  She grew up on a family farm that her brother is now prepared to take over now that he’s done with his PhD–because running a large-scale family farm isn’t just something you inherit, you have to learn something first.  She and I had a brief conversation about urban farmers, and how we are glad that they do what they do, but also annoyed at people coming down on large farms without knowing anything about it.

She said it better than I could, but the point is, I feel like if you want to be a farmer, you should learn the history of your business, learn how others do it, so you can take the good of what they do, try to leave the bad, and ultimately be successful.  The mob mentality of assumption doesn’t do anyone any good, and the attitude that large-scale farms are all evil and destroying the land is just ignorant.  After all, if you assume that the people that grow your food are intelligent human beings (which I would hope you would) why would they destroy their own means of production?

Here’s what the EPA has to say about the state of farming in the US:

There are over 285,000,000 people living in the United States. Of that population, less than 1% claim farming as an occupation (and about 2% actually live on farms). There are only about 960,000 persons claiming farming as their principal occupation and a similar number of farmers claiming some other principal occupation. The number of farms in the U.S. stands at about two million.

What is a farm?

For the purposes of the U.S. Census, a farm is any establishment which produced and sold, or normally would have produced and sold, $1,000 or more of agricultural products during the year. (Government subsidies are included in sales.) By that definition, there are just over 2.1 million farms in the United States.

It has been estimated that living expenses for the average farm family exceed $47,000 per year. Clearly, many farms that meet the U.S. Census’ definition would not produce sufficient income to meet farm family living expenses. In fact, fewer than 1 in 4 of the farms in this country produce gross revenues in excess of $50,000.

According to the 1997 Census of Agriculture, the vast majority of farms in this country (90%) are owned and operated by individuals or families. The next largest category of ownership is partnerships (6%). The “Corporate” farms account for only 3% of U.S. farms and 90% of those are family owned. However, the term “family farm” does not necessarily equate with “small farm”; nor does a “corporate farm” necessarily mean a large-scale operation owned and operated by a multi-national corporation. Many of the country’s largest agricultural enterprises are family owned. Likewise, many farm families have formed modest-sized corporations to take advantage of legal and accounting benefits of that type of business enterprise.

It’s easy to look at a large farm and its shiny equipment, and assume it’s something that it’s not, but 90% of those farms are family-owned.  People throw around phrases like “death of the family farm,” but that doesn’t really seem to be the case, it’s just that the family farm looks different.

One thing I do know about my family history is that my grandfather quit speaking to his grandson for almost a year because that grandson brought a tractor onto the farm, and that was “not how it was done.”  It’s not how it was done, but that’s how it is done. People need to eat, and farmers need to earn a living.  You can urban farm for the love of it all you want, but understand that a lot of other farmers don’t have that luxury.