This column comes with a warning: Reading it could cause the song “A Place in the Choir” to lodge in your brain and stick there. Just ask my proofreader.
You probably remember the song from your childhood: “All God’s critters got a place in the choir. Some sing low and some sing higher. Some sing out loud from the telephone wire. And some just clap their hands or paws or anything they’ve got now.” The point is that it takes high voices and low, singers as well as clappers, to make a choir.
In agriculture I believe it takes all kinds of farms to make a healthy industry: big ones, little ones, in-between ones. Yet today many people argue passionately for one kind of farm over another. I always wonder why we think we have to choose. Let’s take a look at the debate and see if it really deserves credence.
In round numbers, we have around 2.1 million farms in America. Approximately 120,000 of those generate about 75 percent of the total agricultural output. The remaining two million farms are responsible for 25 percent of output.
I believe it is safe to say that the 120,000 farms with the greatest output qualify as large farms. Simply put, from large farms come large quantities of food, enough food that every farmer in America feeds not only himself and his family but 155 additional people around the world.
Today some people have the opinion that all large farms are bad. They often call them “corporate farms” and see them as evil. Yet 90 percent of America’s so-called corporate farms are still family owned and operated; the families have just incorporated. Far from being evil, large farms truly represent the great American success story.
Larger farms are efficient
For starters, larger farms are efficient. They can afford the latest technology and equipment, allowing them to do more with less. If you were to take a look at agricultural productivity in America, you would see a clear link between larger farms and greater efficiencies. When a new combine costs nearly $500,000, clearly the harvesting costs are much less when you are combining 5,000 acres versus only 500 acres. Large farms are at a great advantage.
Larger farms give us cheap food. In the United States, our consumers spend between 5 and 10 percent of their income on food, depending on which source you quote for the statistic.
In countries such as Jordan, Indonesia and Azerbaijan, people spend 40 and even 50 percent of their income on food. Think how our lives would change if we suddenly had to spend that much more of our income on food. No more vacations, new cars, college funds or large houses. All of those items would be gone for most of us.
Large farms can afford the latest environmental practices. Sprayers with GPS systems that target only those specific areas infested with weeds or destructive insects greatly minimize the amount of herbicides or pesticides used. These sophisticated machines can target an area down to one square foot. Fewer herbicides mean less waste and less environmental contamination.
On larger dairy farms it is now common to see dairy lagoons that capture waste from the cows and methane digesters that recycle that waste and convert it back into energy.
Last summer I visited a dairy farm in Pittsylvania County that creates excess energy and sells it back to the local power company. The farm not only powers its own operation, but if the need ever arose, the farm could power the entire town of Chatham.
You get the idea: We need large farms to feed the world’s seven billion people. And more than 96 percent of those people live in countries outside the United States of America. What a tremendous opportunity going forward for our American producers. But in addition to our larger farming operations, we also rely heavily on smaller farms, too. They provide many tangible benefits not always measured in dollars.
Small farms are at the heart of rural America and small towns scattered across this great nation. They are also behind the successful “Buy Fresh — Buy Local” food movement. The phenomenon has just exploded in the past several years with amazing results.
Farmers’ Markets in Virginia have grown from 88 markets in 2006 to 200 this year. More and more farms are adding pick-your-own elements to their operations. Roadside stands are no longer relegated to back roads and rural areas; they crop up even on busy street corners.
And CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions) are now so popular that many of them sell out for the year before the official end of winter.
Consumers tell us they see several advantage of buying local products. They get the farmer with their food. They can look him or her in the eye, establish a bond, ask questions about his growing practices and sometimes even influence his choice of products.
Consumers also appreciate the fact their food doesn’t travel long distances to get to their plates. Often farmers pick it at 6 a.m. and start selling it by 8 a.m. Fresher products not only taste better, but they are more nutritious because they do not lose vitamins or minerals sitting on a side track or traveling across the country.
Generally, small farms are the ones that add so much to our lives through agri-tourism. With only two percent of the U.S. population being engaged in production agriculture, most of the other 98 percent no longer have a direct connection to a farm. But they can experience farm life first-hand when they visit a farm that is open to the public.
Along with their berries, tomatoes, corn or Christmas trees, the consumer gets something else, a day on the farm.
Small farms are great start-ups
Small farms are great start-ups. Our farming population is aging dramatically in Virginia and the U.S. and many farm-raised kids choose not to continue the tradition.
But we are noticing another trend in people who didn’t grow up on a farm who would like to become farmers. Small farms present new opportunities for the younger generation. It’s a lot easier to get started when you don’t need as much land and capital.
A corn or soybean farmer may need hundreds of acres, but a vegetable farm can prosper with fewer than 30 acres. You might be surprised on the income just an acre of asparagus can produce.
I know a farmer in Surry County who grew up helping his father farm about 1,000 acres of row crops. After college, he decided he wanted to keep on farming, but wanted to do it on a smaller scale. He has fields of pick-your-own vegetables and berries. He sells directly to the public on the farm and at a farmers’ market and he sells to restaurants.
He also adds value to his strawberries by making some of the best strawberry ice cream I’ve ever tasted. (I think the 16 percent butterfat helps.)
He has capitalized on several important concepts: cut out the middle man by selling directly to the public; keep it local; add value to your basic products; minimize your risk by growing a variety of products.
He can always expand, but for the foreseeable future, smaller is better for him and his family.
So again I ask, why would anyone think we need to choose between small farms and large ones? They both are extremely important to Virginia’s largest industry, agriculture, and to give up one for the other would have grave consequences for the industry as a whole.
My message when traveling across the state is simple: there are more than seven billion people in the world, with more than 300 million in the U.S.
We need all types of agriculture…large and small…to feed them all. One group of farmers can’t afford to be critical of those farmers who do it differently than they do. We all play a role and need to celebrate our differences instead of arguing over which is better.
That diversity of agriculture is what makes our industry so unique and so successful. This is not a choice we need to make because, remember, we’ve all got a place in the choir.