January 16, 2004
No set formula for family farms
Folks like to claim they know exactly what is best for America's "family farmers." They also like to claim title to a broad-brush definition of "family farm." Apparently, they think we farmers all walk the same, talk the same, work the same number of acres and turn the same amount of profit. In comparison to today's reality, I say their notions are catty whompus. That's Texas talk for somethin' that just seems a little out of place.
The term "family farmer" is frequently hijacked to promote the misleading populist notion of a small-scale and bucolic agricultural utopia. When that happens, the dignified term quickly loses the luster of its heritage and degenerates into a tired and manipulative political label.
Today, I cringe in disbelief when folks leave a huge portion of American agriculture, which is nearly completely owned and operated by families, out in the rain by unfurling the small umbrella definition of family farm. By their small-scale definition, a lot of us families who farm get a real soaking. It's time to broaden that umbrella by throwing cold water on the old populist ideal.
Defining today's family farm is challenging, but one aspect that should no longer be a part of the definition is size.
According to the Agriculture Department, U.S. farms have grown increasingly different in specialization and location, as well as the level of commitment by the owner. Today's average farmer no longer fits the old rubberstamp notion of "family farmer."
In my view, today's family farm is one that is actively operated by one or more households, combining their labor, management, talents and capital. A family farm can include hired employees and be comprised of land that is owned or rented. A family farm carries with it a personal stake in the environmental as well as the financial health of the operation. Even though my duties as president of the American Farm Bureau Federation regularly take me away from the daily labors of my farm, I continue to manage my farm and am proud to consider myself a family farmer under this modern definition.
Today, farm and ranch families come in all shapes and sizes.
Take for instance the Mahalitcs, a farming family in my home state of Texas. Comprised of Arthur and Clara Mahalitc and four of their sons, this family incorporated their land back in the 1970s, allowing them all to participate in the family business on equal footing. Now, these active Farm Bureau members are the hardest working bunch of folks I've ever known. But, even though they have incorporated, should their farm still be considered a family operation? You betcha.
More than half of all U.S. farmers work off the farm. Of those, 80 percent hold down full-time jobs. Nearly half of all farming spouses also have jobs away from home.
What I'm driving at here is there is no set formula for family farms. Better equipment and improved technology allow a farmer to work the land nights and weekends while holding down a full-time job in town. This lifestyle choice opens doors for farm and ranch families, giving way to greater diversity in farming.
No longer characterized by overalls, pitchforks and straw hats, farm and ranch families have taken on a new persona. For example, AFBF Young Farmer and Rancher Committee member David Zuckerman and his wife Rachel operate 13 acres of leased land in Vermont where they grow more than 40 different certified organic crops. David is also a state legislator, so he farms early mornings, late nights and weekends during the legislative session. Rachel, too, works away from the farm. She is a tutor and artist. Yet, they have a highly successful operation and consider themselves a farming family.
David and Rachel's unique farming practice is just another example of the growing diversification in family farming. There are hundreds of thousands more examples I could use.
So, the next time you hear "family farmer," roll off someone's tongue like an old cliché, remember these two simple words catty whompus. And, remind that someone that it's time to buy a bigger umbrella.