What makes a person a farmer? It’s got to be more than just growing food, because every John or Jane Doe with a garden would then be called a “farmer.” Even the USDA’s technical $1,000 revenue threshold doesn’t feel sufficient. Managed acreage is probably the easiest answer, because there’s a pretty consistent understanding among full-time farmers of how scale relates to workload.
So it’s especially frustrating on social media, where people with a couple of acres who call themselves “farmers” act like industry experts but are really more like part-time hobbyists or homesteaders. Don’t get me wrong — small farms deserve a ton of credit. It is never easy, and for those folks who are self-sufficient or starting a small first-generation hobby farm — kudos to them! Some of my closest friends are homesteaders, and they work their butts off and are great people.
But they’re not ag expects, even if many who have that kind of role feel like they are.
Truth is, in today’s day and age, we often have too much information at our fingertips. By comparison, let’s say you have a tummy ache or other medical symptom. Have you ever tried to self-diagnose yourself through a Google search? With just a few strokes of the keyboard, you could easily be convinced that this tummy ache was going to manifest itself into some awful disease and end up scaring the ever-living daylights out of yourself unnecessarily. Of course, it is always important to seek real medical advice from real medical doctors. They are the experts!
The same can be said for agriculture. Just like you should trust your doctor for medical advice and not get a self-diagnosis M.D. from Google University, sometimes farmers feel the same way. If you have real questions about how food is produced, who better to ask than the people who produce it? Fortunately through social media we have a ton of great resources to connect to the science and these growers.
In different agricultural groups on social media, however, sometimes hobbyists act like experts. Having a half acre plot is fantastic, no doubt there. But when comparing a garden to a large-scale farm, it really is like comparing apples to oranges. There are similarities but also a ton of differences. Oftentimes I see more myths spread about large-scale agriculture through the small-time hobby-farm groups themselves. And who can blame them? If they’re just getting started and don’t have experience or mentorship, they may very much get information from YouTube or a Google search rather than an actual commercial grower or someone with a degree in an agricultural-related field. (Pun intended.)
Whether you have a large multi-generation farm or are small at your local farmers markets, we need every type of farmer to help feed the planet and our communities. However, when someone in an urban community has a couple of tomato plants, that doesn’t give them the know-how or experience to tell commercial tomato growers how to do their jobs, or to perpetuate myths about what they do. It’s best to go straight to the source.
A couple of the popular myths that the hobby community has been guilty of spreading is that commercial growers “drench” their fields in chemicals or that large-scale farms raise their livestock in cruel “factory farm” conditions. While it may be true that their hobby farm gives their animals more room to run around or uses less chemicals that a larger-scale grower, economy of scale comes to mind and we need all types. Producing food in bulk is what delivers affordable food to the masses in places like Costco, ALDI, or other budget-friendly grocers. A majority of people cannot afford expensive eggs — they live paycheck to paycheck and must buy whatever is on sale to support their families, and they deserve access to affordable healthy food.
I would consider our farm a “medium-sized” farm in Iowa. We have several hundred head of livestock and around 2,000 acres. Still, you can find me selling direct to consumer at local neighborhood farmers markets, where many repeat customers love what we produce. Economy of scale though. Yes, we spray our acreage with herbicide. We have to. We can’t go out and weed that all by hand, but a hobbyist on a fraction of an acre could. On the flip side, we never have to spray insecticide on the fields because we have Bt commercial traits built into the seed. If a small farm has an insect problem, they very well might have to spray. Every farm is different, and labeling confusion doesn’t help. (For example, organic farms can still spray and non-organic might not use anything at all.) Still, I wouldn’t offer unsolicited advice to farms much bigger or smaller than mine if I wasn’t well versed in their operations, their needs, and their goals.
Personally, I’m never offended when asked how big our farm is, however I could understand how some people could get offended by this question. When engaging with some farmers on social media who continually perpetuate myths about “big ag,” I do like to ask them how much they produce and they hardly ever answer. Perhaps it’s because they have a garden and not a farm. Someone might say, “I grew up on a farm!” But a lot has changed. Farms are so much better than they were back in the ’80s or ’90s. Comparing farming today to “back then” is like comparing the latest iPhone to a landline. Every industry has improved by leaps and bounds thanks to technology and farming is no exception. It’s that “romanticism” that every industry in the world is allowed to use the latest and greatest technology, but farmers need to stay a century behind with their straw hats and bib overalls. But reality? Agriculture is very tech savvy today and only getting better.
I sometimes hear people in our first-world country scoff at the idea of buying big-brand meats like Tyson or Perdue but will happily “buy local.” But what if your local producer also produced for a larger meat company? There is more crossover than you’d think, and 99 percent of farms are family owned. Just because a farm is big doesn’t mean it’s bad. I bet if people did a blind taste test, you couldn’t tell the difference between the two types of meat … or maybe folks could with the help of good, pretty marketing and buzzwords. 😉
The moral of the story is that ALL farms are important. We need large-scale foods to feed the masses affordably and need small, local growers to feed our communities. They all play a role, but always go to the source. Big doesn’t always mean bad and small doesn’t always mean good. It boils down to management, so let’s end the “us vs them” divide by connecting with one another and learning directly from those that do it. Ask questions, take tours. You might be surprised on what you learn when we all challenge our ideologies.
Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.
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