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5 May 2013 - How Big is Big?

I have some questions for you this week. Questions like ‘How big is big?’ ‘How big is too big?’ “How big should a family farm be?’ “Is the family farm dead?’ I’d be interested in your answers to these questions.

Let me share some of my thoughts because these are questions I hear from readers and listeners. About three weeks ago when I talked about a family feed lot in Arizona with 140,000 head of cattle on feed, I heard from several of you saying “C’mon, Big O, that is not a family feed lot.” Yet it is, started in 1948 by a family who is still involved in operating the feed lot today.

You see, to me, size does not determine whether or not it’s a family farm. In my mind, a family farm can be a 65-acre vegetable farm in New Jersey, a 30,000-acre wheat farm in North Dakota, a dairy farm with 35,000 milk cows in Indiana, a dairy farm with 50 milk cows in Wisconsin or that feed lot in Arizona with 140,000 cattle. Size does not determine whether it is a family farm or family corporation.

I can tell you that from experience. I grew up on a 200-acre dairy farm with 30 milk cows in Wisconsin. When my folks sold the farm, two brothers farming next door bought it. They since have purchased two more farms and today, four family farms are now one family farm milking five times as many cows as we did. It is still a ‘family farm.’

We need to put an end to the arguments we have inside agriculture, ‘big vs. little’, ‘conventional vs. organic’. We can’t afford those arguments because there is room (and a need) for big and little farms and ranches, as well as conventional and organic farms as we strive to produce enough food to feed this growing world population.

I don’t think many (if any) of us would like to go back to those “good old days” of farming when the size of the family farm was pretty much determined by the amount of labor available. On our farm we had a two-row corn planter, a five-foot sickle-bar hay mower, a grain binder with a six-foot cutter and a one-row corn binder.

So maybe we should blame the advent of the four-wheel drive tractor, the 32-row corn planter, the large combines and the robotic milking machines for the end of the family farm as we defined them in our childhood. It takes a lot less manual labor today, so farms can be much larger, but still a family farm.

I think it is a silly argument, but I am interested to hear what you think the size of a family farm should be. Let me know by sharing your thoughts at orion@agbizweek.com. That also reminds me that in the “good old days” the only way you could do that would be with a pen, paper and the U.S. Mail.

My thoughts on Samuelson Sez.