So What Exactly Is “Big Ag?”

Rincker Law Food & Ag Policy, Speaking Engagements 3 Comments

I spoke last month on sustainability in “Big Agriculture.”  It got me thinking.  What exactly is “Big Agriculture?”  How do we define what is or is not “Big Ag?” And when did it become a bad name?

Is it whether a farm is owned by a family or a corporation? 97% of farms are family owned.  What if shareholders of the corporation or members of the limited liability company are family members? Are we just talking about major U.S. corporations?

Is it a certain number of acres that makes a farm “Big?” According to the National Agriculture Statistics Service, the average U.S. farm size in 1046 acres.  In Illinois, it takes approximately 2000 acres (on average) for a family to generate enough money in crop production that is equivalent to a full-time job.

So if it isn’t acres, are we talking about gross sales? In 2011, the average farm income was approximately $100K/year.  About 85-95% of farms supplement household income with off-farm jobs.  Approximately 82% of farming operations have less than $100K in gross sales (not profit) and only around 8% of farming operations have more than $250K in gross sales.

For livestock operations, does “Big Agriculture” really mean Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (“CAFO’s”) or Animal Feeding Operations (“AFO’s”)? Organic farms can be CAFO’s.  Is that still Big Agriculture?  What about the farm with 30 goats near a stream that is deemed to be an AFO due to its proximity to water bodies?  Is that “Big Agriculture”?

Is it the fact that the products are “non-organic” that make it “Big Agriculture?” That’s seems silly.  There are a lot of very small farming operations that are not organic.  What about farms that do not qualify under the National Organic Program yet use very holistic management practices and sell produce at the local farmers market?

Is it the use of technology that makes an operation “Big Agriculture?” I think you would find that nearly every single farming operation uses some type of technology.

Is it that farms do not sell directly to consumers (e.g., Community Supported Agriculture – or CSAs, farmers markets) and instead take animals to the local salebarn and crops to the grain elevator? There are some extremely profitable farming operations that sell directly to consumers that are able to generate over $1 million in gross sales.  It’s possible that a rooftop farm in Brooklyn could generate more in sales than a dairy operation in Upstate New York.

Is it because food is not “local” that makes it part of “Big Agriculture”? Well, that just doesn’t make sense either.

Hope you get my point.  If we are going to talk about “Big Ag” then we need to define what we are talking about. The definition is not so clear-cut. Maybe agriculture operations aren’t so “Big” after-all. I would love to hear your thoughts.  What exactly in your mind makes a farming operation or agri-business part of “Big Agriculture?”

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Comments 3

  1. Great comments, Cari. Many people ‘assume’ about Big Ag when they really don’t understand what they are talking about. Ag seems to be getting negative nicknames lately (i.e. swine flu, pink slime, meat glue) and Big Ag is easy to remember. Maybe we need to start some good nicknames that consumers and the public will stick to! I’m going to share this post on my blog if you’re ok with that!

  2. We are told that the majority of farms are family owned. What is missing however is that many farms are under contract to large processing corporations. Actually, only a few processors are in control of farming. I believe the percentage is greater then 95% in chickens.
    So while an individual may own the property the corporation owns the animals and controls most of the operation. It isn’t really farming in the traditional way. In fact, most is automated and requires few employees.

    I support farming – big and small, CAFO’s.. the works.. but I am very concerned about the “monopoly” risk with our current system. I am not too sure it is beneficial to anyone but the corporations and I would love to see the farmer have a choice in how they farm and who they sell to… My idea of a family farm is a far thing from what these huge contract farms look like. We need more independent processors..

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