As I was a writing a piece about food policy (nothing like trying to wrap-up agricultural policy in 500 words when the Farm Bill itself is 1,770 pages), a clear distinction stood out between a “farmer” and a “food producer.”
To me, and I think to many of us, “farmers” are those who work the land. They’re the ones who get dirt under their fingernails and whose eyes light up when conversation turns to compost. But while that may be the portrait for the people growing your food, it isn’t necessarily the portrait of the people who own America’s farmland or who are producing your food.
Let’s start out with some basics. First, nearly half of the country—over 1 billion acres—is farmland. Yet only 4% of the owners own nearly 50% of that farmland. And according to data from the USDA, there is a very high correlation between sales volume and how directly involved the owner/operators are with the actual land. Take, for instance, small-scale family farms (which make up 90% of the number of farms in the US). Their owners do 70% of the labor themselves. Bump up to a very large-scale family farm or a non-family farm and the number drops to only 19%.
This means that as farms grow into bigger and bigger businesses, the ones who own and operate them are more likely to be managers and marketers and accountants and less likely to be actual farmers. In other words, they move along the continuum from “farmer” to “food producer.”
This week, if you’re curious, Google the company behind the label on your produce or packages and see if you can find dirt under their fingernails.