Negative messages about agriculture hurt mid-size farms
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Negative messages about agriculture hurt mid-size farms

The disappearing middle class, considered the backbone of capitalistic economies (i.e., most economies in the developed world),is a phenomenon that’s been troubling societies for years.

Disposable incomes shrink as households whose incomes fall in the middle of their country’s income distribution are squeezed by the likes of housing costs, taxes, transportation spikes and most lately the ripple effect of the pandemic.

Householders socked away gobs of savings during the pandemic. But when life returns to some semblance of normal, the economy will once again look to middle-income earners to open their wallets. If their legions are declining and their expenses keep climbing though, their disappearance will continue.

A similar concern has surfaced in agriculture, related to disappearing average-size or mid-size farms.

It’s tough to exactly assign an accurate acreage figure to them, given how Statistics Canada data is chronically out of date. Likely though, they’re in the 1,000-acre range, and there’s more of them than any other size farm. You see them when you drive in the countryside. They are everywhere.

Mid-size farms play a huge role to play in their overall contributions to local and national economies, and to environmental preservation. But they’re caught in a squeeze between rising costs of essentials such as machinery, energy and labour, and incomes that have risen as well, but are challenged to keep pace.

For decades, many farms grew in size to capitalize on the economies of scale. Prices farmers received for their commodities were low, especially for grains and oilseeds, so they had to grow to be efficient and derive the income they needed. Some farms became very big. But many grew only incrementally, staying what is still regarded as mid-size.

More recently, as commodity prices rose, some of these farms have stabilized. In fact, farmers’ net cash income rose nearly 22 per cent in 2020, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

But profile-wise, so-called average farms have given way to much smaller, specialized farms. Volume-wise, small farms are less productive. So what comes off their fields or out of their barns is more expensive. Consumers willingly pay, though: they identify with what they believe are small-farm values and traditional food production by family farms.

Ironically, those values are, and have always been, the domain of mid-size farms, too, and most large farms. Overwhelmingly, they are owned and operated by families, not by corporations as naysayers would have you believe.

However, the agriculture sector has been unable to create a baseline of public understanding about commercial farming. That’s created confusion and left consumers vulnerable to slanted and scurrilous messages from activists about how farms grow crops and raise livestock.

Now, red flags are being raised, at home and abroad, about how a disproportionate focus on small farms threatens the agri-food industry.

For example, in the most recent edition of Irish Farmers Monthly, Pat McCormack, president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, describes what he calls a “make-your-mind-up” moment involving mid-size farms.

“We either actively support [mid-size] commercial family farms or we are going to end up with hobby farms at one end and factory-farm units at the other, with nothing worth mentioning in between,” he says.

According to McCormack, the media doesn’t understand the agriculture continuum. And through what he calls “negative media messages,” he thinks government policy is leaning towards supporting convenient and colourful sound bites and photo ops with small farms, instead of addressing real problems in the sector.  

Something similar is happening in Canada. In a policy paper from the Guelph-based Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, author Al Mussell says mid-size farms need to be supported to offset size the disadvantages they face. Marketing efforts must be created that are more amenable to mid-size farms, he says.

I’m not one to blame the media – it reports on what it’s told. And maybe some of the recent announcements supporting communications between farmers and consumers will start to help make a difference. But unless that happens, expect mid-size farms to continue to be a question mark to people everywhere.

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