Commentary: Family farmer: Who decides?

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Editor's note: The following commentary was written by Suzie Wilde, the wife of a Texas family farmer and originally posted on the Texas Agriculture Talks website.

I kiss a family farmer.

Some of the land he farms has been in his family for almost 100 years. He does all the work himself at this point in his farming career, except for harvest time when two or three other folks have to help. Often those are even all family members, including his town-dwelling wife, at times. (I can pack a pretty tight module, if I do say so myself.) But lately I have come to realize that many of those out there who are critics of farming think that the farmer I kiss should not be allowed to be called a family farmer.

They think that he has too much land, too many tractors, a barn that is too big… They contend that he is “big ag” or “corporate farming.”

This leads me to look for a definition of any family business. There is a family here in town who owns my three favorite Mexican restaurants.

Because they own three restaurants, does that disqualify them from being a family business? Are you only allowed to own one restaurant to be a family business? Can that family hire employees to bus tables or do only family members have to bus tables? If the farmer I kiss only owned one tractor, would the critics then let him be called a family farmer?

Sounds a bit bizarre when you put it in these terms, but often bizarre ideas are quicker to float around the social media world than truths and facts.

I recently saw a comment on a blog post which reflected the opinion that most farmland is being farmed by corporations. I cited the EPA’s numbers that show 98 percent of farmers are family farmers.

The commenter promptly said that may be so, but those 98 percent only farm 2 percent of the land. He had no information to cite for his numbers, which is pretty common on the Internet. Just make something up and throw it out there.

Other facts from USDA show that his comment is completely incorrect.

I have been around farmers and farming since the day I was born. I have yet to personally know some huge, faceless corporation that farms. Where are they? Who are they? So I started looking at all the farmers I know more closely.

I do, in fact, know some corporate farmers. I won’t use names, because it’s just plain rude to start talking about folks on the Internet without their permission. But, for example, let’s take a dad and his two sons who farm about 2,500 acres with lots of tractors and plows. They have their operation set up as an LLC, a limited liability corporation. This makes very good business sense, and it provides some protection of their home and personal assets from lawsuits against the LLC. Now, the dad and his sons do 98 percent of all the work. They drive all the tractors, plant all the crops, harvest all the acres (except maybe an extra person or two to build modules at harvest, which most likely is a nephew or the farmer wife they kiss.) But, since the dad and the two sons operate under “Dad & Sons Farms, LLC,” do they no longer get to be considered family farmers? Are they now a huge, faceless corporation? No.

It seems to me that a lot of this labeling or refusing to allow a label may be a reflection of the class warfare being waged in our country. There are those who want to put a limit on what is okay to have or have not.

If Farmer One has too many acres, he is too big, he can’t be considered a hard-working family farmer. Is it only Farmer Two, who has a five-acre garden he handpicks himself, who can be considered a hard-working family farmer?

Is it really too many acres, or is it that Farmer One appears to be more successful than Farmer Two? I hope our country is not going toward a time when the American dream of running a successful family business of any size will be looked upon as a bad thing.

I have decided to create the definition of a family farmer that will apply to this blog site for the rest of the blog’s life: Family Farmer (noun)–a person or persons growing food, fiber and fuel who are actively engaged in the day-to-day operation and process of growing a crop, regardless of the size of the operation or processes.

The person or persons must care for and about the land they use to grow the food, fiber and fuel. They must go about the growing process in a responsible manner, following strict guidelines set forth by the USDA, FDA and EPA.

I kiss a family farmer. Follow our adventures on or

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Ripon  |  August, 26, 2012 at 02:48 PM

I consider a family farm one in which the family members do most of the work. Those farms that are so big that the owners just manage the farm but hire most of the labor force - I no longer consider them a family farm especially if they have non-farm investors.

Michigan  |  August, 26, 2012 at 06:06 PM

Really, we are all going to try to define ourselves by how much work we do. Or who actually hangs a milker, or plants corn. Farmers that spend all their time doing physical work are most likely out of business or close to it. Farming requires careful planning and business skills in todays world. If you spend 8 hours per day milking and the rest of your time trying to have a family life that makes it very difficult to be successful on all fronts. Farmers are whatever they chose to be, they can be a tractor driver, a cow man, a cowboy, a hog farmer or a person that manages a very successful farm business that employs many people to help him and his family accomplish their goals. Not your goals, or society's goals. Their goals. Many world famous companies are family businesses, they proudly state this, some have over a 100,000 employees. They are still a family business. Lets not spend our time dividing eachother, there are plenty of people to do that. We are farmers, we smell like manure, our hands get dirty, we own land and animals, and some of us manage and operate large scale farms, and some of us actually milk the cow. It is all a matter of goals, and I can promise you everyone, no matter how loosly we define farmer works harder than the other 98% of this poplulation

NYC  |  August, 27, 2012 at 09:42 AM

In my view, a family business is still a family business if FAMILY is at all involved in any of the daily operations. Whether it's a 2-person operation or a public corporation, family members working together in any capacity constitute a family business. In many cases, farmers and other corporations hire non-family employees to help support a growing business, which does not change the family business definition! @familyfounded

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