Size Is Relative

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.

  1. CRG
    March 10, 2011 at 2:34 AM

    A reporter called me recently asking about a statistic he had seen stating that the average farm size in California shrank within the last decade. Was this a good thing or a bad thing, and did it have anything to do with a move toward “corporate farms”?

    I took the opportunity to talk to him in detail about this very subject. Is it good or bad? No, it’s not. It’s just a statistic. I explained to him that different systems, different crops, and different regions lend themselves to different sized farms. For example, an avocado farm in San Diego County is going to be much smaller than a hay farm in the desert, because the avocado farm requires much more management, capital investment and labor per acre than the hay farm, and because it will be profitable at a smaller size than the hay farm.

    Well is that good, or bad?

    No. It’s not. It’s simply part of a healthy agriculture ecosystem. If everyone was a small avocado farmer we wouldn’t have milk and bread. If everyone was a hay and grain farmer, we wouldn’t have guacamole and cut flowers. And if all hay and grain farmers operated on 25 acres, there still wouldn’t be any milk and bread because the farmers would go out of business pretty quickly.

    He never ran the story and I’m not sure if he completely understood my lesson, but I personally found it very enlightening. This reporter is representative of the public at large. If he is asking “does a reduction in farm size have anything to do with a move toward corporate farms” (I’m still wondering how that works), then we can bet that a lot of other people are asking that same question.

    • commonsenseagriculture
      March 10, 2011 at 8:02 PM

      Thank you very much for sharing your experience, I appreciate it. I think the current of association of decreasing farm size being linked with corporate farms is two fold.

      First, many remember the late 70’s and early 80’s when so many smaller and mid sized ranchers and a fair number of farmers went belly up and the land was purchased by investment bankers and absentee owners who were gambling on the real estate market. When that didn’t work out for them, they set a price that only very large operations (corporations) could afford.

      Second, many family farms and ranches are now incorporating as children return home to help for financial and inheritance reasons. In the past, when land was affordable, the children would buy land near the home and set up their own place. Today, the trend is to return home and try to buy little pieces to add to the home place, as they come available. Thus, the “size” of the average farm is increasing and more are identified as “corporations” than in the past.

      Thank you again for taking the time to post a comment.

      • CRG
        March 11, 2011 at 12:44 AM

        That makes sense. I was talking to another person today who was asking about the average size of farms in our county (pretty large), and he was a little surprised when I told him (in response to his next question) that virtually all the farms are family operations.

    • Olivia Gonzales
      March 11, 2011 at 10:49 AM

      I’m glad that you made a point of not caving to the reporters desire to make some kind of opinion from what’s simply a fact. It’s really too bad that media is all about sensationalism anymore.

  2. Michael
    March 10, 2011 at 10:24 AM

    Most parts of CA 1-5 arces make a living, not really. Almost sound as bad when we deal with Caltrans. Maybe in the foothills or low populated places. In the Central Valley, 1-5 arces making a living is a joke. Unless you are close to large towns but stay you live 20-30 mins away from a town. Nothing you really can plant unless you do a farmers market but even that is stressful. If you do not have a home for what you grow, why try to make a living…that is for all crops. Remeber to NOT all places in CA follow the same rules/laws. Any crop that you go and want harvest by other will not do 5 arces, 10 is the min.

    How about this, go into more deepth if you are going to say you can make a living in CA. Look up each county and try to find these 1-5 arces that people make a living. They must grow and harvest the crops/animals on the same property, these 1-5 arces. They cannot import or buy from other people (most fruit stands).

    We call people under 5 arces hobbie farmers.

    • commonsenseagriculture
      March 10, 2011 at 8:08 PM

      I thank you for the comment Michael. I agree that the successful (financially support a family) 1-5 acre farms are few in number, but they do exist. You are correct in saying that they are close to major markets, in areas with folks who tend to have higher disposable incomes. The ones that I am familiar with are around San Diego, Los Angeles, Fresno and the Bay Area. Areas that have nearly year round growing seasons and you can plant, harvest and sell two to three crop cycles each year. North of Sacramento and along the Sierra’s, one is not likely to find a 1-5 acre farm that is supporting a family, unless it is growing our infamous illegal crop.

      Thanks again for posting.

  3. Caryl Velisek
    March 11, 2011 at 5:46 AM

    I applaud the diversity of agriculture today but it concerns me that some promote their particular brand of ag in such a way it downgrades what others may do. i.e. organic is best, pasture-raised is the only way, etc. We are all in this together to make a living by feeding people and to enjoy a wonderful way of life. As an agricultural reporter I deal with it all and sometimes it pains me to hear what people say about methods different from what they are doing. There has to be a better way to co-exist and to promote each method and product. There is a place for all these wonderful, diverse ways of feeding the world. We need to be more positive about all of them and more careful we are not hurtful to someone else.

  4. bob
    March 13, 2011 at 11:40 PM

    Indictments about the scale, production practices, etc, are so counterproductive to agriculture in general and more importantly to the people who eat the food farmers and ranchers produce everyday. The marketplace will take care of what people want even if we don’t always agree ourselves.

  5. LincolnFarm
    March 14, 2011 at 1:35 PM

    A neighbor stated at a meeting once that his goal was to milk as many cows as his farm/land base would support and that he felt farmers were using up too many resources to farm beyond their land base (dairies hauling silage/manure longer distances to continuously expand). That resonated with me and made me think about how I farmed. Was I farming beyond the sustainable scope of my land base? Maybe… I think about that as I plan the future of my farm with the intention of my children having the opportunity to take over. Is it realistic to expand a venture that will need to contract as land is gobbled up. Why not strategically plan now for what I think I can own and securely rent for a land base in 20 years.

  1. March 10, 2011 at 2:02 PM
  2. March 14, 2011 at 6:33 AM

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