People who value the image of old-time agriculture and traditional farm values will be pleased to know small- and medium-sized farms could be poised to make a comeback, at least in the US, with government help.
Large farms have been gaining ground on both sides of the border. Every time an agricultural census has been taken in recent memory, the number of large farms grow.
Still, they comprise less than 10 per cent of all farms. The vast majority of large farms are still family owned. And they have a huge role in feeding people and livestock, not to mention contributing to all-important exports.
But despite this contribution, they just don’t give society a warm feeling about farming. To many people, big equals bad, even if it’s not true.
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That’s where small- and medium-size farms enter the picture, at least from an image perspective. How much image counts for government support is debatable; I don’t believe any government would help small- and medium-sized farms just for appearances (would it?).
But the lure of the numbers is significant. It can’t be dismissed. Almost half of all farms have less than $10,000 in sales and 80 per cent have less than $100,000 in sales.
Given the US has about two million farms, that’s a lot of votes.
Those same farms, though, are working their tails off. US data also shows farming doesn’t pay the bills if you’re farming small. That means most of them have to keep another job going to make ends meet.
And the US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, doesn’t think that’s right.
“We believe there’s a better alternative than go big or go out,” he told members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition last week.
It was the ideal audience to hear such a message, and to pass it on to consumers. All farms have a role in sustainability, one of the public’s big demands for agriculture. But the sheer numbers of small- and medium-size farms mean there’s that many more operators who can influence how the environment gets treated.
It makes sense for the USDA to support their sustainability. To Vilsack, that means support for agri-business that serves them.
For example, he wants to see more meat processing capacity outside of the few conglomerates that now dominate the market. Their track record has been abysmal. They basically ignore and dismiss smaller producers, or at best, treat them poorly.
He also wants domestic fertilizer production increased. Farmers believe they’ve been held hostage as energy prices climbed and their fertilizer costs skyrocketed. They had little choice but to pay a rate they believed was gouging them, and railed against having to fork over such sums to foreign producers.
And finally, Vilsack is pushing for support for commodities grown with what he calls climate-friendly practices. That’s what the public wants too.
Will Canada follow suit? The federal agriculture and agri-food minister doesn’t control the same kind of budget as Vilsack, and can’t be as prescriptive or substantive.
But everywhere, small- and medium-size farms tug at the public’s heartstrings. So, give people agriculture that feels familiar and offers up a sense of security. That doesn’t mean turn your back on large producers… but don’t ignore the rest, either.