“The Family Farm” has become a pretty big buzz word, but I think it’s a term that like most buzz words has a pretty vague meaning that’s open for interpretation. The “Eat Local” movement, another fuzzy buzz word, promotes the family farm against its adversary, the evil “Corporate Farm”. But what is a corporate farm anyway? I think we imagine giant monoculture farms of tens of thousands of acres being farmed by robots and high tech machinery funneling all the profits of an unsustainable mega-farm into the purse of a multinational corporation with no regard for the environmental or social impacts of its farming practices. This is a pretty big generalization to be making for an industry that the general public seems to know fairly little about.
Last night I watched a food documentary called “Fresh”. It was excellent and shed a lot of light on our current food system, talking about both the good and the bad, and it really got me thinking about the terms “family farm” vs “corporate farm”. They interviewed a couple who raise broiler chickens somewhere in the U.S. on an enormous scale. Each chicken house holds 29,400 chickens for a total of 118,600 chickens on the farm. This “farm” is owned by a husband and wife, not by a corporation. So, it must be a “family farm”, right? Well, let’s look a little deeper into how this farm operates. The couple buy their baby chicks from a large food company, likely either ADM, Cargill or Monsanto since those are the three largest in the world. They also buy their feed from “the company”, as well as the toxic chemical powder that they spread on the chicken litter and the antibiotics that are mixed into the feed “for the health of the birds”. Also, the physical labour required to catch and slaughter the chickens is provided by a foreman employed by “the company” and a team of inmates from a nearby prison. Finally, the processed chickens are sold back to this same corporation at a predetermined and insanely low price set out in a seven year contract! So really, the couple who own the farm are only supplying the land, buildings, electricity and water, while the giant food corporation supplies the chicks, the feed, the antibiotics, the labour, and the end market. This is definitely not what the public thinks of as a family farm operation!
There are thousands of farms all over North America that are practicing “conventional agriculture” techniques based on the principal of “economies of scale” and bigger is better. But really, if those farmers have no control over the price of their product, the inputs of their farm, and the end market for what they’re producing, then they’re nothing more than employees of the giant corporations that are setting the industry standards and determining the commodity prices.
This is not only happening on chicken farms. The same corporations, ADM, Cargill and Monsanto have almost exclusive control of all the beef, pork, dairy, corn and soybeans produced in the U.S. as well. In the film “Fresh” author Michael Pollan explains how only 4 companies produce 84% of all the beef in the U.S. These same companies also produce the chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and seeds that are sold to grain farmers, and then buy back the grain at the elevators to process them into food additives, starches, sweeteners and even plastics and biofuels. So when you go for a Sunday drive through the country and ask yourself “where are all these supposed corporate farms? All I see are medium sized farms that look like they’re operated by regular families” Well you’re right. You can’t see the corporate farm because it’s invisible. The headquarters of the corporate farm are in high rise office buildings in a far away city. But all those medium sized farms you see, even if they’re not owned by a small handful of corporations, they are controlled by them, and in my mind that’s virtually the same thing.
And so what is a family farm? My sister-in-law Sarah and her husband Logan are currently buying a quarter section of land near Bashaw and planning to raise a small number of chickens, likely some heritage breed pigs, and almost certainly some cows for their 3 kids to help raise and show at cattle shows. They will decide what is best for their land and for their family, they’ll have full control over what inputs and farming practices they choose to use, and what their own family doesn’t eat they’ll sell to people in their local community. THAT is a family farm!
Check out the “Fresh” movie trailer here: http://www.freshthemovie.com/
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