Opinion: Big farms aren't 'bad'
November 6th, 2013
01:45 PM ET
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Bo Stone, his wife Missy, and his parents jointly own P & S Farms in Rowland, North Carolina. He represents the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance as one of its Faces of Farming and Ranching. Follow our Farmers with Issues series for more perspective from people out in the field.

It’s just before 7:00 a.m. I’m pulling on my boots to step onto the fields of our family farm. The sun is rising, casting a pale glow across the land, making the warming frost sparkle. I love this part of my day. I walk out to the middle of the field and look over my crops.

I am proud of the corn, wheat and soybeans we grow on my 2,300-acre family farm. We grow sweet corn and strawberries to sell at the roadside market and also raise hogs and cows. And I feel good about the role we play in food production in our community and well beyond.

Yet many people choose to attack me when they say big farms are bad. They say I’m doing something wrong, but they’ve never stepped foot on my farm. It is time for farmers of all sizes to stand up and tell consumers how it really works on farms of all sizes. And stop the attacks.

We often get asked how big our farm is, and my usual answer is: "Why does it matter?"

I ask this because I love the blank stare I get as a response. What is more important, I say, is what we provide. We grow corn, wheat and soybeans and raise animals. We do it with care. We help provide access to fresh, real food that helps people eat well. My father and grandfather walked this farm the same way I do each day as the sixth generation to farm our land.

Big or small, what’s the difference? In America, the discussions around food have moved further away from the heart of the matter - growing healthy food - and more toward finding ways to divide us.

Organic vs conventional, GMO vs non-GMO, “factory farm” vs small community farm - at the end of the day, there’s an important place for ALL farming. It might be surprising to know that large family farms (sometimes called “industrial farms” by some) often have the most innovative sustainability practices, cutting edge animal care programs and higher regulatory hurdles. Big is not bad.

In America, there are 2.2 million farms. The average size of these farms? Just 418 acres. An acre, by comparison, equates to a little less than a 100-yard long American football field. Small family farms, which average about 231 acres, make up a surprising 88% of farms in America. On the other end, large or very large family farms - usually consisting of anywhere from 1,400 to 2,000-plus acres - make up roughly 8%. Not what you expected, right?

Farming is also a family business. Despite common misperceptions, 95 percent of American farms - both large and small - are family-owned and operated.

When I talk with my friends who have big and small farms, we are more similar than we are different. We both work to grow food because we want to deliver a healthy, affordable, sustainably-produced option for people. We both worry about planting season, and drought, and early frost. We share tips and ways we’ve overcome the same challenges.

In order to offer healthy choices for all Americans, we need all types of farms: big and small, organic and conventional, rural and urban. And if being a so-called “industrial farmer” means being part of creating healthy food solutions, then I’m all in - every day and twice on Sundays.

Late October is harvest season, World Food Day, World Poverty Day, and Food Day here in the U.S.. It's a season of action and awareness around food. These observances are moments in time that ask people to ‘stand up’ for real food. Seasons like this make me even prouder that I do the work I do.

How do I plan to stand up for real food? By inviting anyone who wishes to contact me and talk about what we do, what we grow and how we grow it with care and pride. And the next time you hear, read or say the words “industrial farm,” please think about the people behind that farm, and the food they produce.

Got a question for our farmers? Pose it in the comments below and we'll do our best to answer.

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soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. chefcatreana

    Reblogged this on Chef Catreana and commented:
    I rebloged this on my page becasue I was really impressed with to positive comments mentioned ate the end.

    Word Press Blogger Bret to Hal:
    Hal, to answer your question, if farmers choose to participate in the direct payment program, then they receive a payment of 8% of base acres for a crop. This rate is that same if the farm is 100, 1000, or 10,000 acres. So while the dollar limit will vary, the proportion/ratio is the same. Regarding CCPs and LDPs, market prices have been good enough that no one is getting those at all.

    That being said, all those programs are going away with the 2013 Farm Bill.

    November 25, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
  2. Charla B.

    I think this article is needed, but does not tell the whole story. Every big farm is not bad. However, there are practices on many farms that are not healthy for the animals, consumers, soil and/or earth in general. I would like to have a conversation about how to stop the unhealthy practices while maintaining food production/profitability for farmers.

    November 11, 2013 at 12:54 am |
  3. myrtlemaylee

    True not all large farms are bad, but there's significant info missing from this article. Industrial farms meaning what? Meaning family-owned farms, large or small, that contract with industries like Tyson or Purdue to factory farm poultry under horrific conditions in order to make enough money to keep the farm?

    Most Americans will agree, I'm sure, that not every crop can be organically grown all the time, or that large farms aren't necessarily bad simply because of size. But this article is a fluff piece, that doesn't address the more relevant & serious issues in US agriculture, IMO.

    November 10, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  4. Small farmer

    I'm a small farmer - micro-farmer really, at 5 acres. We do fresh produce and cut flowers. We have a niche, but I have no qualms with larger farms. It takes economy of scale to make the economics work. USDA statistics show that unless a farm grosses at least $200,000 there isn't enough net for family income. I make no where near that amount, and yes, currently operating in the red. I hope to turn this to a profit in a few years, but I have no illusions and know that regardless of "how" I farm (sustainably, minimized chemicals, crop rotations, etc.), it takes scale to make a profit. Small farming is more labor intensive, but labor is expensive to hire, so it means long hours for me to avoid additional labor costs. But I do this because I enjoy farming and bringing quality food to people. And so do farmers of all operational sizes, dimensions, and approaches. A large percentage of operations in the mid-West now practice low or no-till production, crop rotation, cover crops, etc. The advances in technology have enabled some really impressive gains in soil protection in the past few decades. So, let's not destroy the good in search of the perfect for food. There are lots of good things going on and I applaud all farmers. And to quote another informed foodie - "Let's stop the food fights" and focus on implementing the good approaches.

    November 10, 2013 at 11:48 am |
  5. Jean-François Garneau

    Thank you for this very informative article. I have a question: is the retaining of seeds from one crop to plant the next one still possible? Thank you.

    November 9, 2013 at 9:17 am |
  6. Ruth Williams

    I am most interested in having communication with Bo to discuss his farming practices and how it fits into the larger sustainable picture frame of food that has less biotechnology ties, less toxicity in practice, and an increase in healing land striped from nutrient rich topsoil. We need to have these conversations more often together and I for one accept the invitation. Please feel free to reach out. https://www.facebook.com/GmoFreeTompkinsNy

    November 7, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
  7. Jeb Stuart

    Seriously what a bunch of Organic BS, U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance has one thing on their mind destroying the rights and markets of small farmers. Who are the board members of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance? They are nothing more the a propaganda avenue for Industrial Farming and Monsanto

    November 7, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
  8. Anna Leigh Peek

    Reblogged this on AL from AL.

    November 7, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  9. Oscar Pitchfork

    The biggest problem with corporate farming is that it makes thousands of local farms into dozens of regional farms. If there is ANY kind of societal collapse, people can't walk 200 miles to where the food is. In local commounity farming,its close enough you can ride a bicycle there of need be.

    November 7, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • avid reader

      You are absolutely correct but as a medium-sized operation ourselves i can tell you there has to be enough size to have enough income to be profitable. Thank you for realizing your food doesn't magically appear on your store shelves!!!

      November 7, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
      • SlowMoneyFarm

        Agree! It does take support of those small and medium farms, but that also has to be done *now* – before societal collapse!

        November 7, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
  10. Tired of the fight

    Our nation is lacking basic education about farming and agriculture. It's never been as clear as it is today. This battle of organic vs conventional is getting old and will lead to our eventual demise. Get educated, people. Both practices are necessary for our very existence. People are living longer and the population is growing. We have a big problem coming.

    November 7, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • MattyG

      How did we ever survive before the existence of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer and GMOs?! Oh yeah, that's right, via the true "conventional" farming methods that now must be certified as "organic." The growing population vs. available farmland doomsday scenario of everyone starving to death is a myth and there are many other factors of much more grave concern to the future of our food supply than production per acre (like climate change, cross pollination of GMOs and terminator seed genetics, soil depletion, lack of available fresh water, etc. etc.) The amount of waste in our food supply chain today is astounding, the amount of available space to grow food even within densely populated urban areas is astounding, and the truly educated and forward thinking of us are already focused on real solutions for the evolution of our food supply that will easily outpace the demand for increased per acre production that supposedly drives the need for genetically engineering our food with foreign DNA and then dousing it repeatedly throughout a season with biologically active chemicals. You have every right to your opinion and to be as tired as you want to be, but that doesn't give you the right to stand in the way of progress and proclaim some sort of intellectual superiority over those who see the future and are working to bring those sustainable and common sense solutions to bear. So stand aside and take a blow, Tired, because the world is moving forward with or without you.

      November 7, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
      • Anna

        We survived before on subsistence farming where every seed was planted by hand, individually nurturing each plant to ensure a harvest so we would have enough food to survive. Yes that was very organic, but there aren't enough people who what to work that hard to produce enough eat. Farming on a large scale produces more food cheaply- in terms of both money and calorie output it is better to work even a minimum wage job and buy food than it is to grow it yourself. The amount of space in a given urban environment isn't going to match a properly run field of 180 acres.

        And the 'truly educated and forward thinking' people have predicted several times over the last 100 years that the world population would run out of food. And we haven't because of GMOs and large scale farming. What 'real solutions' are you providing that can match a nearly 1-300% improvement in yealds? (corn in 1950 would get something like 80 bushels per acre, now those same fields get 150 to 200 bu/ acre on 'marginal' ground).

        I will also say you have the right to an opinion, but farmers of today are progressing and forward thinking. I would ask what progress you have completed, what "intellectual superiority" do you have hiding away? You claim to have all the answers, but provide nothing but un-implementable dogmas. Where do you expect farmers to go? Stand aside to what? What are you doing that is practical, grounded in reality or productive?

        November 8, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
        • Jeb Stuart

          Anna, Please answer the questions posted
          1) Can a Farmer in your position plant his own seed and not be worried that his pure strain will not be contaminated by a GMO, and if it is what would be the legalities?

          2)What is the long term impact from a Dependency on chemical inputs for production, On the soil and the runoff?

          3) Why have other counties forbid use of some of the GMO seeds in their countries.?

          Please answer

          November 9, 2013 at 11:46 am |
        • What?

          @ Jeb Stuart

          I'm not Anna, but I'll jump in here on #2. What don't you – and nearly everybody else these days – understand about the FACT that every living, growing thing, be it plant or animal, depends on "chemical inputs"? Do you think minerals and "energy sources" just magically appear out of nowhere? The macronutrients plants need to grow are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – do these names ring a bell with you? They're CHEMICALS. Does the source from which these chemicals are derived make a difference? Not if they are presented to the plant, in this case, in a bioavailable form. You want to talk pesticides? Fine. Weeds compete with the crop for the finite amount of nutrients present. Are you going to let them literally suck all the "life" out of the ground, or are you going to try to exterminate them? Try growing an acre of corn sometime without "chemical inputs" to control the weeds and then come back and tell us 1) what kind of shape your back is in, 2) how many blisters you've developed, and, especially, 3) how much free time you've had after adequately weeding the corn. Then imagine doing this on a hundreds of acre scale. As for bugs, same thing: try doing nothing and see how many ears have earworms – that is, if the ears even develop if you're in country where Japanese beetles live. Or you could go through the field and pick the bugs off by hand like a lot of people did 70 and 80 years ago. Good luck with that, and let us know, again, about the "free time". (That doesn't work with the earworms, by the way.) Or you can use the old trusty lead arsenic that was so popular in years gone by – doesn't that sound like a great idea?

          I don't know anything about you – but I suspect that you've never been directly involved, at least on any kind of "scale" or ongoing basis – in the production that you are questioning. It's real easy to sit back and question and point fingers when you don't know a thing about REALITY.

          November 10, 2013 at 8:03 am |
        • Anna

          Hello Jeb, I hope you come back to see the answer

          1) Is there a way to prevent cross-contamination?– When dealing with living things it is hard to say, 100% is never certain. I haven't researched it for our use, but if you wanted to the first option would be to grow crops away from other GMO crops. We eat sweet corn grown in the same field as GMOs, few inches separating the plants. Hasn't bothered us yet.

          2)Chemical dependency, soil (top soil loss, I'm assuming) and the runoff? Chemicals allow more crop to be produced per acre== more food, more crop produced, more income for farmers. Any field use repeatedly for crops will loose nutrients over time and need to be replaced, monitored and adjusted for things like pH (not always chemicals, btw) . Even Native Americans had this problem because they didn't have the large farm animals to provide manure.
          Top soil loss and runoff are bad things, no farmer will tell you differently; Farming practices in the last 100 years have changed to prevent top soil loss. There are environmental and economic reasons farmers hate runoff: it causes problems down stream; also that chemical was paid for to improve the field- and if it runs off it is like throwing money away.

          3) Why have other counties forbid use of some of the GMO seeds in their countries.?
          I don't know, you'd have to ask them. Some reasons- they don't want to import American technology, there is a lot of fear and not much scientific evidence that GMOs are dangerous. No study has been able to provide reproducible results of harm from GMOs. Countries like Mexico will import GMOs to eat, so the urban populations' food is cheaper but the farmers don't want to use the GMOs. They have been manually cultivating the best seeds for 100s or 1000s of years. The original teosinte corn plant had some great traits that have been incorporated into GMO corn for disease and drought tolerance. It doesn't have the yield capabilities, the ears are physically smaller.

          Please answer

          November 10, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • SlowMoneyFarm

      It takes all sizes and types of farms to set the table for all food choices. Some can't afford what we do, some don't want what we do. Some think heritage and heirloom is old fashioned and dismiss it. There's room for both if there are customers to support it.

      November 7, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
      • Kat Kinsman

        I just wanted to say that I always greatly appreciate your perspective on things, Slow Money Farm. I'm glad you're part of the conversation.

        November 10, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
  11. Susan Thomas

    Factory farms get a bad name because of gestation crates, cramped and dirty conditions, inhumane and cruel animal practices. When no farm in America has a gestation crate, I'll reconsider my opinion of industrial farms. Until then, you have not convinced me.

    November 7, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • allen

      Susan have you ever seen a gestation crate or indoor animal housing with your own eyes or do you just read things? Practices such as that protect the young, and supply a clean dry environment for which livestock can reproduce.

      November 7, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  12. MattyG

    Big doesn't necessarily mean bad, but it most certainly can be very, very bad. The farming practices that are most dangerous and damaging and abhorred in the eyes of many consumers are far more prevalent on the large farming operations. As consumers, we have every right to be informed about how we spend our hard earned money and what we feed ourselves and our families. If a consumer wants to base their decision on what to purchase based solely on the size of the farm from whence the produce or product came, so be it, they have every right to make that choice, just as the farmer has every right (well, in some cases, anyway...but that's another conversation) to make the choices about the size of his or her farm and the practices that they employ. With the so much of the supply chain, regulations, subsidies, etc. skewed heavily in favor of the large, "conventional" farmers of commodity crops, I'm sorry Bo, but my sympathies an support will lie more with the local, organic farmer and their challenges than those who all ready enjoy more than enough support via my tax dollars. Whether you and your farm fall into that category or not, I obviously do not know, but what I do know is that there is no place for "conventional," GMO or factory farmed food and products on our dinner table, and we have every right to make that choice as informed consumers.

    November 7, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • TippyT

      MattyG, have you ever been to a 'Big' farm? Or just seen edited/photo shopped pictures on TV? As the article stated, the vas majority of farms are small or medium sized family farms. Even the larger farms most often follow best conservation practices as this helps improve their bottom lines and sustainability. For example, it costs farmers money to use pesticides, so it is in their best interest to minimize the use of them as much as they can. I support Local, Organic, Conventional and most types of farming and visit my local farmers market as well. There is a place for all of these in today's world of 7+ billion people

      November 7, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
      • MattyG

        Tippy: While I have never visited any of the corporate mega-farms (which actually isn't even an option for the public to do in the vast majority, if not all, cases and I probably wouldn't do without a hazmat suit on) I have visited, worked on and grown up around many of the "family" farms to which you refer, where I have witnessed the unfortunate farming practices that have led to my decisions to not support "conventional" farming while also observing that there was absolutely nothing about the work being done on many of these farms that had the first thing to do with the family of the farmer other than their owning the land. We really should stop calling these types of farms "family farms" and be true to their nature and refer to them as "privately owned farms." You seem to be suggesting that I do not believe that there is room for conventional farming on a large scale, which I absolutely did not say and do not believe; however, I did say that, as a consumer, I do not make room on my table for conventionally farmed food and that I have every right to do so without drawing the ire of conventional farmers whose feelings are apparently hurt by my personal decisions made on the behalf of the health of myself and my family. I would never ask Bo how big his farm is and base my support of his farm on that fact alone; I would ask much more pointed questions and use the information he provides to make a personal decision for myself and my family..one that he should certainly not take personal and to which his response should not be "what does it matter." Honestly, if my first question did happen to be "how big is your farm" and that was the answer that I got from him, I certainly would not ask any further questions, probably return a blank stare of disbelief in response to his answer as has been his experience and then thank him before walking away to find a farmer to support who will be proud to tell me everything about his farm and products.

        November 7, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
        • SlowMoneyFarm

          Absolutely have the right to buy food from whomever you choose. In all fairness though, most farms if you walk up and the first question was "how big is your farm?" you'd likely get a blank stare from many, not just what many consider large farms. For many, cultural customs that's akin to walking up and asking "how much is in your investment portfolio and bank account?" I have known people with under 200 acres that would bluntly and with more colorful language tell you it's none of your business. :-) However, I agree with you on the ability to decide what to buy and what not to buy – it's personal choice. Go easy on the hazmat suit – I've been on some large operations and haven't needed one yet! That said, we're a very small place looking to expand, and *are* open about much, but it's an uphill battle getting paying customers. Many like the idea but unfortunately ideas don't pay the feed bill.

          November 7, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
        • Corey P

          First things first, I don't know why you would need to wear a hazmat suit to visit a large farm... I wasn't aware that dirt, gravel, plants, and buildings posed an immediate and present danger to human existance. Next, I don't know how you classify a so called corporate mega-farm but I've never encountered one. Every single farm that I am aware of is owned by one or more individuals who are family members. My family and I farm 3,500 acres and I have never once witnessed anything that we would do that any non conventional farm would consider unethical and make you not support what we do. I don't know how we as farmers can't obtain any public support and respect for being those responsible for feeding a growing population and doing it for cheaper than any other developed nation. I don't really know how anybody can think that organic agriculture has the capability of feeding the same amount of people that we do and just as importantly for as much of a value to the consumer. GMO crops aren't some reckless scientific experiment, it's simply selective breeding. If you wanted a purebred german shepherd then you wouldn't breed one with a golden retriever. As far as your concern for the health of your family, the United States has the safest food supply on the planet thanks to conscientious farmers and USDA inspectors who actually spend time making sure what we do if safe for the consumers of our products. People need to spend more time getting actual facts instead of finding Facebook articles and fringe essays that have outlandish remarks about things and don't care about the ramifications for those who will be affected by what's said. You have every right to consume organic products but please do so respectfully of those who do not choose to. Farmers aren't bad people, we're trying to run a business and a household just like everybody else.

          November 7, 2013 at 9:51 pm |
        • myrtlemaylee

          Bravo! Very well put.

          November 10, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
        • myrtlemaylee

          That Bravo was for you, Matty G...

          November 10, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • Mary

      I appreciate your choice not to put food on your table from "conventional," GMO or factory farmed food and products, but others do not. The world is growing at a trememdous rate, quickly growing to 9 billion. People all over the world would be happy to just have food for their table. Often those so concerned with this thought of factory farms want everyone to eat local or from farmer Joe's down the road- that is awesome, my family is part of the local food movement, but dont criticize those who are looking at a larger picture of how we will feed the vast number of people who like to eat 3 meals a day, 365/year and maybe do not have the resources you do. I am not even talking about 3rd world countries, but our nation today- people all over our country go to bed hungy each night.

      November 7, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
      • MattyG

        Mary, I believe you and others have missed the part where I said "You seem to be suggesting that I do not believe that there is room for conventional farming on a large scale, which I absolutely did not say and do not believe." I find it quite interesting that the farmers responding to my comments take them as my somehow putting them down, disrespecting them or suggesting that they are "bad people." As for your claims of the challenges of feeding the world and people going hungry, people going hungry in our globalized economy of today and the future is absolutely not a matter of lack of supply, but rather of inequality and poverty. Please research this matter before continuing with your assumption that people go to bed hungry in the USA every night because we simply do not product enough food for them to eat. This is a out-and-out falsehood. In response to Corey, I can't see how anybody could possibly think that organic argriculture could NOT feed the world, and that's not even what I am advocating. And one last thing, Corey, please educate yourself on what a genetically modified organism is..it couldn't be further from selective breeding..the vast majority of GMO crops are transgenic organisms, meaning that they have been modified to include the DNA of others species. Unless you've been successful breeding your corn with bacteria or your tomatoes with flounder, you can't compare inserting the genes of one of those into the other with the nature mating of a german shepherd and a golden retriever without providing false and misleading information to anyone that might read your post. I would recommend that, once having read up on what GMOs actually are, that you actively pass what you have learned to others in your community and social circles who may have also been misinformed or are making false assumptions about this very real threat to our health and food supply.

        November 11, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
        • Corey P

          Matty G... You shouldn't preach to me about what gmos are. I'm a farmer after all. I have a great familiarity with them and how they work since I plant them and you don't. My recommendation for you would be to get some real info instead of a definition from an opinion article or wikipedia and then put on your community organizer shorts and round up your pals and tell them all you've learned about what gmos actually are. So take a minute and do a little homework and pass on your info and show everybody how gmo smart you are.

          November 11, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
  13. Hal Walter

    I notice there were no statistics cited for the proportion of subsidies provided to different classes of farmers by the government. Taxation is theft pure and simple when it is handed out to farmers or anyone to enrich their own businesses.

    November 7, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • Brent

      Hal, to answer your question, if farmers choose to participate in the direct payment program, then they receive a payment of 8% of base acres for a crop. This rate is that same if the farm is 100, 1000, or 10,000 acres. So while the dollar limit will vary, the proportion/ratio is the same. Regarding CCPs and LDPs, market prices have been good enough that no one is getting those at all.

      That being said, all those programs are going away with the 2013 Farm Bill.

      November 7, 2013 at 10:21 am |
      • Hal Walter

        I appreciate your response Brent, but I was not asking a question per se. Bo and his family have taken, and I do mean taken, $1.1 million in the last seventeen years in subsidies. He is one of the top recipients in his county. At 2300 acres he has slightly less than 4x the acreage as me. We do not take others money in order to be proud of our crops like he does. Subsidies are part of his business plan and it is not just direct payments as you surely know. http://farm.ewg.org/persondetail.php?custnumber=A09025325

        November 7, 2013 at 11:14 am |
  14. pamB

    if people realized how hard farming is -- land rich , but cash poor so many farmers - good to read such truth about farming and who does it and what it really means. thanks for great article.

    November 7, 2013 at 12:21 am |
  15. Thinking things through

    You sound responsible. A lot of Bigger Farms are not. Not saying all.

    November 6, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
    • TippyT

      That is a bold statement to make. Have you done research on how many bigger farms are not acting responsibly? As I posted in an earlier response, it is in farmers' best interest to minimize the amount of pesticides, fertilizers, water, etc that they apply because these all cost money. Most people would be surprised at how much farmers (even big farms) care for their land and and work to be sustainable.

      November 7, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
  16. DougM.

    Great Article! More people should be aware of farming realities in this country. Nicely written.

    November 6, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
  17. Good point

    People tend to look at anything big or successful and automatically hate it. A better question for us to ask would be about how they treat their animals and process their crops.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
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