Big is bad, small is good, organic is healthy, conventional kills you, grass-fed is better for you, grain-fed is wasteful, families are good, and corporations are evil…..
The pontificating purveyors of perpetual rhetoric have been rather vocal lately. Once again, discussion is swarming around the issue of the size of farms and ranches; the proverbial “good vs. evil.” To most farmers and ranchers, who rely on the productivity of their farm, ranch or forest to maintain a living, it is clear; size is relative.
For decades, individuals and groups have attempted, sometimes successfully, to fracture agriculture; to divide and conquer. Recently, in the past few years, agriculture has begun to come together, setting their differences aside and working together as one, for the benefit of all. This unity and healing of old scars has positioned many, who have relished in conflict, to encounter unknown waters and uncertainty.
In California alone, there are regions where a family can make a living on 1 to 5 acres. In other regions, it requires several hundred and for others more than a thousand acres for a family to survive. Climate, growing days, soil fertility and water availability are a few factors that heavily impact productivity of a farm or ranch. For example, my cousin-in-law has a 4.5 acre flower farm near San Diego, does very well for his family of four and is considered “big.” On the other hand, a good friend of mine, who lives in North Eastern California, is surviving running cattle on more than two thousand acres and is considered “small” compared to his neighbors. When it comes to size, relative productivity is what matters. Irrigated pasture might be able to carry three to five head per acre, while desert range might require 100 acres to carry just one pair. A twenty acre farm in the Salinas Valley might be able to grow three different crops in a year and be financially viable, while a shortened growing season in the Scott Valley, limited to one crop per year, will require three to four hundred acres of grain or hay to be viable.
Throughout the day, I could not help but picture the agricultural industry as a circus, each size and type of operation an act. Every act has its moment in the spotlight, just as trends, fads and niches do in real life. That does not make one act or operation good or bad. It is the collection of the diverse acts that makes a show successful. A one-act circus would be hard pressed to sustain business. It is the diversity of agriculture that provides choices to the public. It is the diversity of agriculture that provides choices to producers. Each act or operation offers something unique that meets the needs of a different segment of society. Diversity and variety are what helps keep the marketplace healthy and aids in growing the economy.
Furthermore, it is high time to move beyond the belief that all farms and ranches are solely focused on maximizing production. Times have changed. Modern agriculture is about optimizing production. It is about finding balance with yield, profit, input costs, the welfare of livestock, keeping the soil healthy, enhancing wildlife habitat and conserving resources. The mentality of “get big or get out” is from the past. We must move beyond the idea of preservation and embrace conservation.
The continued labeling of practices and the portrayal of one practice as better than another only serves to perpetuate animosity. Prejudice must end. Minds must open. Listening for understanding must occur. It is time to recognize the importance that all aspects of agriculture play. Small or large, organic or traditional, the ability for families to make a living, while conserving and managing the resources is essential.