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It's not 'Little House on the Prairie,' but it's still a family farm

Posted Tuesday, August 3, 2010, at 4:44 PM

What is a family farm?

I've heard that asked several times and I thought I knew the answer. At least I knew the answer for our farm.

We are a family. Most of our family income is generated from the farm and we all work on the farm. In fact, from the time they were able to carry a tool, or bottle feed a calf, our children have "worked" on the farm.

Long before I ever started writing a column, I told people I didn't know exactly what a family farm was -- I just knew we had one.

In my Semi-View columns, I try to use humor and anecdotes from our day-to-day life to let people know there are farm families still left. But despite that, I've been accused of being a "factory farmer," "corporate farmer" and my personal favorite, "industrial-model agriculturalist."

By reading farm magazines, Internet sites and my own "friends" on Facebook, I have learned there are many, many farm families still left in America.

In fact, 97 percent of today's farms are still family owned. In Saline County, I can only think of one farm which is actually "corporate owned." I can think of hundreds which are family owned. Some are bigger than others and are operated with the help of employees, while many are just operated by family members or a seasonal worker or two.

Those farm families, just like ours, may have modern machinery, but the work ethic, the morals, the character and respect for the land is still the same as it has been through the generations.

So why is that we only hear about industrialized agriculture? And what is industrial agriculture?

I really don't know.

The biggest change in today's farms is their look -- they are more specialized and less diversified. While I was in college back in the day (I won't say what day) I remember the college professors talking about how the farms of the future would be more specialized.

I've often wondered, "Did the fact that academia thought that make it so, or did they see that as the trend needed to keep some family farmers still farming?"

For the most part, farms of today are bigger. But so are most stores, businesses, houses, corporations, incomes, our list of "things we need," etc.

In America, we seem to think bigger is better.

Looking back I can see that many of today's farms grew in the 1980s when the farm economy became very difficult. Many farmers simply left to find easier ways to make a living, while others retired, simply renting their farms out to other farmers.

Those of us who stayed had to get bigger to stay profitable and our farm is no exception. Almost every farm we rent or own now was once farmed by another farmer who retired.

The truth is we are trying to expand our farm in order to ensure our sons can be the eighth generation of my husband's family to farm in America.

In fact, multiple generations farming together is one of the big changes and a big reason that today's farms have expanded. It used to be that a young farmer would buy a farm down the road from his family and go out on his own. My father and mother-in-law saved money in the first year or two of marriage as my father-in-law worked for his father. When they could, they bought a John Deere Model A tractor and rented their own farm.

They were barely 20 years old.

But because of the increasing cost and economies of scale of farming, that is much harder to achieve today. So instead, multiple generations of families farm together.

Here in Saline County we have many multigeneration farms with two, three and even five families depending on the farm income.

Working wives and off-farm jobs has also changed agriculture. As soon as jobs "in town" became more lucrative and insurance became more of a necessity, many women ditched the henhouse and large garden and went to work, providing much of the day to day living expenses for a farm.

When I read Laura Ingalls Wilder's books or other anecdotes of farmwives, I see that really hasn't changed -- the egg and milk money provided the living expenses and was often the responsibility of the wife. It still is.

I laugh sometimes (and cry others) when I hear people say, farmers aren't "real farmers" anymore -- "They have air-conditioned cabs on their tractors."

Does that mean, drivers aren't "real" drivers anymore because they have air conditioning in their cars? After all, now most cars (and tractors) come standard with air conditioning. Are children no longer "real children" because they have air-conditioning in their houses, something most of us didn't have "back in the day?"

I've even asked some people why farmers are expected to live in the 1960s while the rest of the world moves on into the 21st century?

As commodity farmers raising corn, soybeans and cattle we are never guaranteed a price. At the end of the season, we sell our harvested crops. A day or two difference in a planting or harvesting date can often make a huge difference in the amount of crop we harvest to sell. On the other hand a day or two difference in the days we choose to sell our crops can make a big difference as well.

We can choose the time, but as I often tell people it is like "playing" the stock market for your entire living. Just a day or two with prices going up or down can make a difference on whether we make a profit that year or not. We borrow, pray, fret, cry and sometimes even celebrate at the end of a season when our bottom line is determined not so much by what we do or even how we do it, but by world markets, food corporations, local trends, weather, pests and a myriad of other factors too numerous to mention.

But despite that, those of us that raise field corn, soybeans, wheat and cattle are some of the only still "independent" farmers left.

Hogs, chickens, vegetables and fruits are mostly contracted in advance to other companies. While I still believe wholeheartedly that those farmers are still "independent" family farmers I do fear a time when our choices will be limited as well.

More and more people talk about the "local farmer," the one that sells directly to the consumers at farmer's markets and other venues across the country. Those farmers, whether they are selling vegetables, fruits or meat are generally smaller and are raising crops as a sideline business, and not usually as the sole source of income.

Although they may want to expand their farms to provide a suitable income, they run into problems with being able to afford enough labor, equipment and land. In other words, the same problems that made some farmers retire in the 1980s, while others expanded.

So I am upset by the fact that some people seem to think the only way to promote "organic" or "local" food is to tear down the food system which has led America to the most inexpensive food in the world. (Although, as many farmers point out it, food is still expensive for the poorest in our country.)

The truth is we can and should have both types of agriculture. Promoting only "local" food relies on the unlikely scenario that we will go back to an agrarian society, where most people live on small farms.

The only problem with that is that it doesn't work, and America isn't very good at going backwards. And as some point out, small "organic" farms in third world countries certainly hasn't led to prosperity or food security.

However, just relying on large food corporations to control what is grown and what is sold is not a good idea either.

For those of us that are still (relatively) independent family farmers, we'd like to stay that way.

In fact, as with most things, moderation seems to be the key.

And with that moderation, I hope we and others like us can continue to be "Family Farmers" for many generations to come.

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