In Defense of Modern Agriculture

The thing about modern American agriculture is that most of it is big – Texas big – especially in our midsection. There might be a thousand times as many small farming operations left in the prairies, valleys and mountain sides of this country but the vast majority of the land is farmed and ranched by the big boys and girls and they are incredibly productive. 
Notice that I did not say corporate farms or factory farms – code words for big and bad, dog whistle phrases for agriculture as owned and operated by shills for Monsanto or Pfizer and are automatically condemned by many urbanites as guilty of overusing water, pesticides, antibiotics and fertilizers. Almost all large farms are family businesses, incorporated for tax purposes. They've become that way because the cost of farming has become a breathtaking exercise in financial risk. 
Equipment is as expensive as those high dollar Italian supercars. A new tractor? Think a Ferrari-like $300,000. A combine? Think a Rolls-Royce Maharaja Phantom Drophead Coupe at $400,000. And the cash to pay the monthlies? It comes once a year if the weather holds and the farmer made all the right choices along the way.
Like every other worthwhile business pursuit, farming is a 'pay-to-play' corporate pursuit which means it has to be big to generate the income needed to play another day. Small farms tend to be hobby farms; few generate the cash needed to be self-sustaining without outside income. People who operate them often live hand-to-mouth and are called 'richer in other ways,' a polite old phrase meaning they're going broke but it still feels good. Regardless, banks still say 'show me the money' at the end of the month. 
The nostalgia surrounding small farms certainly plucks at the heart strings of an urban America without an even distant memory of what life was like way back when. Returning to an imaginary era of a more sustainable time when fresh eggs could be plucked still warm from the nest, chickens for a family Sunday dinner were scurrying around the back yard, a hog was slaughtered in the fall, and fresh-picked and canned vegetables were kept in the cellar? That nostalgic image of carrying the family through the harsh but Norman Rockwellian, cover-of-the-Saturday Evening Post winter puts a smile on everyone's face but it ain't real life, folks. 
It's a pleasant, back-to-a-simpler-life fantasy created early in the twentieth century by Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney to sell magazines and movies. Large corporate but still family-owned farms using the latest technology are what feeds America and the world today. Owners of most of those idealized small farms can only feed themselves and a few friends. They're the people you see at farmers' markets in the summer, selling their excess produce during the height of the picking season. The very small profit they hope to make helps tide them over until next year. Year around 'in town' jobs help them pay the monthly utility bills and cover expensive necessities like health insurance.
It's a concept dearly beloved by the hosts of two recent seminars, though. The New York Times' Food for Tomorrow Conference, which was Mark Bittman's pricey feeding the wealthy extravaganza last November and the more recent Food Tank Summit both glorified small holder, peasant farming that's prevalent in third world countries. At best, it does a merely adequate job of staving off hunger. At worst, it leaves millions facing starvation. To see it as a solution to the real or imagined ills of modern agriculture is the equivalent of reviving Miguel Cervantes and asking him to rewrite The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha with Mark Bittman as Sancho Panza.
Asking for a return to those mythical good old days is tilting at imaginary windmills astride an old, lame horse. It might make a few Ingenious Gentlemen (and Ladies) feel good but it solves no real problems and creates a few that have been long gone. Instead, we should work hard at steadily improving the large scale farming techniques that have been extremely successful at feeding a rapidly growing population.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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