Commentary: Shorthand terms miss the diversity of California farms
Issue Date: December 26, 2018
By Dave Kranz
As a news consumer and, for many years, as a writer and editor of print and broadcast news copy, I take an interest in the shorthand writers use to describe—and, often, to cast aspersions on—their subjects.
Take, for example, “dusty.” In news stories, “dusty” is used generally to describe any community west of the Mississippi that is smaller than the community where the writer lives. Just in the past month, for example, the San Francisco Chronicle described “the dusty towns of the Salinas Valley” in a story about visiting Monterey County.
As a native of Amarillo, Texas, I remember a long-ago article in the Sacramento Bee, focused on the legendary poker player Amarillo Slim, which described Amarillo as a “dusty west Texas town.” Somebody—not me—later wrote to the Bee to point out that Amarillo receives about twice as much annual precipitation as Sacramento does. Who’s dusty now?
When you read news stories, opinion articles or blogs about California agriculture, you’ll see recurring terms such as Big Ag (it’s almost always capital “B,” capital “A”), corporate agriculture, factory farm, industrial agriculture.
Sometimes, the writer will put those terms in copy or a headline (Big Ag is particularly attractive to headline writers). Often, though, the terms come in quotes from representatives of environmental groups or others who don’t like some aspect of current agricultural production. Almost always, the terms are left undefined or unchallenged—presumably because writers and editors assume their readers know and understand the terms.
In a couple of recent examples, the news website Undark described the San Joaquin Valley as “the land of Big Agriculture” in a lengthy story about the region’s air quality, and the Sierra Club magazine criticized the new federal farm bill as providing “subsidies for Big Ag.”
In the national news context, Big Ag often serves as a shorthand reference to companies that provide agricultural-related products or services, rather than about farms. Here in California, it tends to be defined mainly as “large, corporate, industrial” farms that the writer doesn’t like. For most users of those terms, and their readers, their definitions remain just as amorphous as the definition of Big Ag.
But some of those terms do have actual definitions, provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Let’s take “corporate.
In its Census of Agriculture, USDA lists the number and proportion of farms owned by families or individuals, partnerships and corporations. It further breaks down corporate farms as family held or other than family held.
At the time of the most recent census, 2012, about 8 percent of California farms were owned by corporations and the great majority of those were family-held corporations. Only 1.1 percent of California farms were owned by nonfamily corporations.
In the 2012 census, nearly 77 percent of California farms were held by families or individuals and about 11 percent by partnerships, and another 3 or 4 percent by cooperatives, estates, trusts or other types of owners. When the latest census figures come out, we’d expect the proportions to remain close to that.
As to “big”: That, too, remains in the eye of the beholder.
Census data and other USDA reports show California farms and ranches remain smaller, on average, than their counterparts nationwide. The most recent USDA “Farms and Land in Farms” report put the average California farm at 328 acres and the national average at 444 acres.
Earlier this month, USDA published an updated version of a report titled “America’s Diverse Family Farms,” which looks at farm organization on a national scale, based on a survey of farmers and ranchers. Among its key findings:
Farming remains “overwhelmingly” a family business nationwide, the report said, with 98 percent of farms defined as family farms, accounting for 87 percent of farm production.
- Small farms, as measured by gross cash farm income, make up 89 percent of the number of farms and operate half of the farmland. On the other hand, the largest share of farm production, 39 percent, comes from large-scale family farms.
- Small-farm households rely heavily on off-farm income sources. According to USDA, that means general economic policies, such as tax or economic development policy, can be as important to them as traditional farm policy.
- Seventy percent of all farms received no farm-related government payments in 2017, the year the survey was conducted. Payments for participation in working-lands conservation programs were evenly divided among large-scale, midsized and small family farms.
- The second word of the report title says it all: “diverse.” Trying to paint California—or an individual region of California—as the home of Big Ag misses the amazing diversity of farmers, ranchers, crops, commodities and production practices employed here.
Lest we fall into the same trap, it’s also good for people in agriculture to remember that there are many nuances among the reporters, bloggers, interest groups and others who discuss and write about the topics important to us.
Let’s hope we all do a better job of talking about, and to, each other during 2019.
(Dave Kranz manages the California Farm Bureau Federation Communications/News Division and edits Ag Alert. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.) Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.