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Labeling farms ‘big’ and ‘small’ overlooks why they exist

By Rebecca French Smith

Can someone please tell me the difference between “real” food and “fake” food? I used to think the latter was plastic until a newspaper article suggested otherwise. Growing up we had fake, rubber grapes that my mom put in a bowl on the table, and I admit, I have beaded pears in a crystal vase on my sideboard.
The title of a recent column in the New York Times, “Celebrate the Farmer!” by Mark Bittman, piqued my interest. Celebrating farmers is a passion of mine, so I read on, but I quickly discovered he meant only one kind of farmer, one who grows “real” food. His definition of a “real” farmer is different from mine.
To me, real farmers are people who grow something, who plant seeds or raise animals. That’s it. Within that there is, of course, a vast variety. There aren’t good farmers or bad farmers, or real farmers or, uh, not-real farmers; they merely do things differently. Mr. Bittman’s definition is much narrower, however.
His farmer cultivates small plots of land  to grow specialty crops (vegetables and fruits like you might grow in a garden) and raise organically grown meat. His farmer’s produce is most always in season and provided only to local markets. I get it. I like local food too, and I frequent farmers’ markets when I can, especially since my garden was not a producer this summer. The farmers’ markets in my area are only open on certain days, though, and it’s not always convenient or even possible for me to make their hours. So I go to the grocery store, too; I know when I do that a farmer somewhere has taken great care to provide the food for me to buy and feed to my family.
My issue is with Mr. Bittman’s distaste for farmers who plant corn or soybeans on big farms, who use a combine to harvest and/or who happen to be business savvy. He suggests that “we need more real farmers, not businessmen riding on half-million-dollar combines.”
No matter the size of the farm, every farmer is a businessman or woman if they’re selling crops in the marketplace; and I’ll wager if they’re small, they have dreams of being bigger in some way. That’s the nature of business. Farming’s altruistic side is only part of the equation. Without profits, a farm goes under, and then no one gets food from that farmer.
Bigger farms are most often family-run – 98 percent of American farms are. Several generations are involved in the planting, harvesting and daily operations. It has taken years to grow these farms. Mr. Bittman calls for more, small 10-acre farms. We are in need of new farmers, regardless of the size of their operation, to produce food people on the planet.
According to the latest data, on average, each U.S. farmer produces enough food and fiber for 154 people in the U.S. and abroad. In 1940, a single farmer only fed 19 people. Since that time, the number of farms dwindled from 6.3 million to 2.2 million. What farmers – both large and small – today accomplish is remarkable. In the U.S. we have food security because of them.
Granted, Mr. Bittman also takes issue with the minimum wage, unemployment, food stamps and the “nonsensical and wasteful system that pays for corn and soybeans to be grown to create junk food and ethanol.” These things affect consumers’ ability to buy food and where they buy it, but so do many other issues. Perhaps a visit with a few Missouri farmers might increase his perspective.
Agriculture is complicated and multi-faceted, but it is still driven by markets, which in turn are driven by supply and demand. It is, at best, a leap to think that increasing food stamps will increase the amount of broccoli sold, when you may actually see more boxes of Cheerios fly off the shelves.
This issue is too large to make sweeping statements that would cause harm to one farmer and good to another because of their farm’s size. We should celebrate the farmer, but not just the small ones or those that raise chickens in the front yard. You cannot pick and choose which farmers you’re going to advocate for if you’re truly concerned about feeding a growing population. It will take all of them – regardless of how they produce food – to meet the needs and demands of consumers.

(Rebecca French Smith is a multi-media specialist for the Missouri Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization.)

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