Old Macdonald still has a farm

Posted: 25 September 2013 in Uncategorized
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Family farming still occupies an important place in the American imaginary, both as the memory of a traditional mode of organizing economic and social life and as an alternative to the rise of corporate farming.

However, as Tom Philpott [ht: sf] reminds us, corporate farming doesn’t much exist. Agribusiness, yes. But the majority of actual farms in the United States are still owned and operated as family businesses.

While there are plenty of mega-corporations in the food industry, they rarely do the actual farming themselves.

A USDA study released in August found that 96.4 percent of US crop farms are “family farms,” or “ones in which the principal operator, and people related to the principal operator by blood or marriage, own more than half.” That number doesn’t leave a lot of room for corporate farmers, does it?

So, given the growing importance of massive, globe-spanning corporations in our food system (think Smithfield, recently bought by the Chinese conglomerate Shuanghui International, Cargill, and Monsanto), why don’t they just take over the fields and farms?

The reality is that farming itself is generally a terrible business. There’s much more—and much easier—money to be made by selling farmers the raw materials of their trade—like seeds, fertilizer, or livestock feed. And there’s also plenty of money in buying farmers’ output cheap (say, corn or hogs) and selling it dear (as, say, pork chops or high-fructose corn syrup). In his excellent 2004 book Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, Richard Manning pungently describes the situation:

A farm scholar once asked an agribusiness executive when his corporation would simply take over the farms. The exec said that it would be dumb for the corporation to do so, in that it is not free to exploit its employees to the degree that farmers are willing to exploit themselves.

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