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    So what is "Big Ag" Anyway?

    You are watching a professional basketball game. As usual the game is fast paced, exciting, and, for the most part enjoyable. The game slows down a bit for a free throw due to an offensive foul. The "rock" is thrown up and...brick!.

    This is what I believe happens with the term Big Ag. The term is thrown out there like a basketball (rock) heading to the rim only to brick. This could be semantics, but here is the thing; semantics matter, ALLOT. Semantics defined, is the branch of linguistics that studies the meaning of words. What is meant means more than what is said. Take one of my favorite expressions from my southern roots, "Bless your heart". Unless you are culturally aware, you may think this statement is meant as a positive; however, in the south this is not so positive. We southeners use this statement as a way to not offend people when we do not have anything nice to say. So what is meant means much more that what is said.

    So isn't it about time my #Profood counterparts do one of two things: Define Big Ag or just stop using the term altogether. I prefer the latter. It just detracts from a conversation because inevitably the question will be asked: What is Big Ag? The conversation will then focus on this instead of debating real issues, like safe, healthy food, stable food supplies, food insecurity, and future direction of agriculture, GM foods, and many others.     

    I took part in a #Twitter conversation last night, well according to some I didn't take part and just jumped into the middle of it. I believe that twitter conversations are meant to be broad and include our entire network. If you don't like having people take part in a discussion, use the DM functionality or migrate over to email; otherwise, please expect me to take part in discussions that pertain to any and all aspects of the world wide food supply chain. It is my passion so I cannot help myself. 

    So, why bring this conversation up and how does it pertain to defining Big Ag?

    Here is why:

    As you may already be aware, Michael Pollen was invited by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to speak about sustainable agriculture. It is also a well known fact that many in agriculture have a beef with Pollen and his stated positions. I am not going to get into the differences, but suffice it say, there are more than a few. Given this fact, one of the donors, who happens to be a rancher, Harris Ranch did not like a one-sided lecture and wanted a panel discussion instead that included meat expert(s), industry, and Pollen. Harris informed the school that they would not be donating funds if there was not a fair and balanced discussion. 

    As you can imagine, this did not go over well with my #profood counterparts. Many were livid. The disdain for Harris Ranch's action was very apparent. Obviously, this was another Big Ag move to block their voice to be sure the truth was squashed once again. Big Ag was running scared and using their massive power to keep down the little guy again. It figures, right? This is always what Big Ag does; we keep the truth hidden so we can keep pillaging the land, produce un-healthy food, and squandering Mother Earth. 

    This is the knee-jerk reaction I have seen many times. Now Harris was getting attacked by people who knew ZERO about the operation, people, and business. In a matter of a few tweets, Harris Ranch was now Big Ag.

    As the day progressed yesterday, the usual banter went back and forth. I just watched from the sideline as yesterday was a bit busy. I finally had spare time in the evening and noticed a good discussion about the previous Pollen/Harris event. My first question: Is Harris Ranch Big-Ag? If so, why? And please define what Big-Ag means. I did not receive an answer, mostly due to the fact, I was told, that my intentions are too hard to read. Fair enough. Let this serve as my intentions. I really want to know what Big Ag is. Seriously....what is it?

    So, instead of discussing the merits of why a panel may or may not have been better for an educational venue in terms of food, we spent wasted time trying to define Big Ag, and neither of the parties was going to capitulate. Dead End. 

    Let's just do away with this term. As @JeffFowle said in a twitter update "Big" is NOT "Bad". To which my response is, EXACTLY. What you do, what values, morals, and ethics you live by defines whether or not you are "Bad", both personally and professionally. 

    So there is no mistake and it is crystal clear:

    There are folks in our industry that do not abide by the rules, but these are the few. The problem is that the few is the focus of the discussion. News in our country revolves around sensationalism, and it is really hard to take the good, hard work 98% of the farmers do each and every day and make it newsworthy. This translates to a position that the agricultural industry cannot be trusted and produces un-healthy food. Then we wonder why the consumer acts a certain way?

    So, the question remains: What is Big Ag?

    17 comments:

    1. Nate first off Michael Pollan spells his name with an "A" you should fact check before posting. I have no problem with Harris threatening to withdraw his money, its his right to do with money whatever he wants.

      For me Big Ag is anything that treats their product as simply a commodity and nothing else. Big Ag is also one that doesn't abide by the UN's definition of sustainability which states that meeting our needs does not infringe upon the needs of future generations. Its pretty simple really and I know you understand it even if you don't want to. Any business that uses resources in a way that infringes on future generations to meet their own needs is unsustainable and is therefore BIG in a bad way. Big Ag fits this definition to a T. Big Ag is also responsible, in part, for the declining health of america and american's no matter how far they distance themselves from that truth. When the top 3 chronic diseases in our society are all diet related the blame has to go somewhere my friend. Thousands upon thousands of mono culture crops, giant CAFO feedlots (no not the farms that use pens, but the farms that produce enormous manure lagoons that desecrate our earth) these are BIG AG...and yeah, they suck and should be shut down. They also produce unsafe food that I wouldn't put near my mouth or in the bellies of people i love. would you? I think its far past time you get HONEST with yourself and the community at large. What do you eat Nate? what do you feed your family? You've told me in private now why don't you tell the community at large instead of writing ridiculous strawman arguments against no one in particular because you had a rough week on twitter.

    1. I use the term big AG all the time. I am taking about the middlemen: The guys who buy our politicians and thwart the political system and subsidies to favor bigger and bigger farms(which are not any more efficient).
      I have seen so many dairy farms go under, some dear friends.
      I am a farmer and I am profood because our system is so broken we need the help of non-farmers to get our products to market. Profood is pro farmer. Are dean foods and Cargill?

    1. Nate,

      As I watched the discussion and outrage by several Pollan supporters I was confused, afterall it seems that in the past most of the ProFood tweeps are supportive of open conversation. The openness of conversation on twitter has been a real benefit for me in learning other's perspectives and sharing mine. Rob Smart @jambutter and I have talked many times about how taking a defensive manner because you agree or disagree stops progress. The term "big ag" is something that automatically triggers defense by lots of us because some use it as an attack, and I'm sure many of our tweeps don't realize that it is a red flag that shuts off productive conversation. Maybe we could flag a few things as watchouts for all of us to avoid when productive conversation is the goal.

      Of course, if the intent of using these words is to effectively demonize everyone that uses practices that may be concieved as "big" or "large" and thereby cut off conversation, then we will never get a good definition of such. This is sad, because several large and high dollar farms use sustainable practices, the most famous one is Salatin.

      Thanks,
      Mike Haley

    1. Before digging in with you Zach, a few points.

      1.) I am not hiding my thoughts on food. Read below and send it out to God and country!
      2.) I am honest with myself Zach. We need all forms of ag, and whether you want to accept it or not, that includes "conventional".
      3.) A typo does not make for a lack of "fact checking"..a little grumpy today?

      That out of the way: First, thanks for responding..

      Zach,

      I shall start at the end of your post and move up. In reference to what I eat and your statement about hiding behind "a rough week on twitter". First, my week was not rough. It was really awesome! I am just sick and tired of the broad brush and label applied to anyone who "dares to disagree with Pollan, with an A (I "fact checked" this time :-)). What is wrong with wanting a balanced debate. I can assure you that if say, a Cargill, Monsanto, ADM, or any other large business was going to give an open lecture on GMO's in a similar venue like that of Pollan's (with an A) the #Profood tweeps would be spreading the negativity around ASAP.

      Secondly, I have made very clear on your blog and others that my family eats organic locally produced foods. As I have stated many times, we are very blessed to have that choice! We are fortunate enough to live next door to a farmer whose farm is 3 miles away. One of the many, many benefits to rural life. I have access (something we both feel is lacking in this country is access) to these foods. I have also stated unequivocally that we need ALL forms of Ag to meet the needs of the world. To think otherwise is naive at best.

      As for people who pollute and desecrate the earth, yes we should go after them vigorously, and while we are at it, how about we go after the EPA, who keeps granting permits to these polluters. I want these people closed down as much as you. They give all of us in the #ag industry, and I mean all of us, a bad name. How many of the farmers you interact with here on Twitter do you think engage in such hideous practices? Let's place a wager and then you and I go visit them. I know the door is open and will be educational for both of us. My wager is $500 that NONE of them do.

      As for our health, you and I agree on a great deal here, but again, how does a 5,000 acre farmer down the street from me play in the unhealthy food situation? Is it because he isn't organic?

      I think you may be interpreting my post different than the intent. My intent is that that label is used so much and incorrectly, that consumers who are non-ag folks are left with a bitter taste in their mouth relative to agriculture...and that Zach is not going to help any of us. Are we not trying to educate consumers, get then back into the kitchen, and pay attention? That is all I am saying.

    1. Ulla,

      Many thanks for your response. I understand the frustration that everyone is feeling regarding what our dairy farmers are suffering through. It is horrendous.

      I do not agree that ALL big farms (what is big?) are not any more efficient. Some are, some are not - it has to do with the farmer. A good farmer is a good farmer whether on 100 acres of 5000 acres, and vice versa. If you are a shoddy farmer of any size and then go to organic....guess what. You are still shoddy and a net positive will not be had.

      I know a 2500 acre organic farmer. Grows corn, soybeans, wheat, livestock, and such. I argue that he may not be as sustainable as a conventional grower when taking ALL things into account, like GHG, sustainability, energy use, etc..) It is just complicated. Thanks again for your response and for reading. I appreciate it.

    1. Mike,

      A really good suggestion to flag out the terms that we all need to avoid.

      My goal is to support all agricultural efforts, from commodity, specialty, beef, organic, CSA's, and all in between. It is my view, we all can exist together and must work together to deliver of the promise we ag folks have made with the world.

    1. Zach's comment..."UN's definition of sustainability which states that meeting our needs does not infringe upon the needs of future generations."
      I am at a loss of how anybody can fall under that definition, including organically produced products.

    1. Very good article Nate. I think that when a group or a person feels they are being stepped on, they are looking for someone/something to blame. Too bad this is the way society has become. If Big Ag means the middleman or the processors, then call it that way. Everytime the term Big Ag is used just sheds a negative light on agriculture as a whole. Without agriculture, this country will fail.

    1. I like the post Nate. I have often wondered the very same things. I see statistics tossed in conversations on twitter frequently. Unfortunately, those tossing the statistics do not fully understand how that data is obtained or what the specific definition under Census data or ERS actually is. It is troublesome to me. I despise labels of any sort. I also do not understand the hostility from Zach. I find it odd.

      A few of the many definitions of “Small Farm” as used in statistical data…for your viewing pleasure (and hopefully education)

      http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/FarmStructure/glossary.htm#smlfarm

      In addition, here’s how the Census of Agriculture defines for their data:

      There are two major
      groupings of farms, small family farms with sales of
      less than $250,000, and other farms. The small
      family farm group is divided into 5 subcategories,
      described below:
      1. Limited-resource farms have market value of
      agricultural products sold gross sales of less than
      $100,000, and total principal operator household
      income of less than $20,000.
      2. Retirement farms have market value of
      agricultural products sold of less than $250,000,
      and a principal operator who reports being
      retired.
      3. Residential/lifestyle farms have market value of
      agricultural products sold of less than $250,000,
      and a principal operator who reports his/her
      primary occupation as other than farming.
      4. Farming occupation/lower-sales farms have
      market value of agricultural products sold of less
      than $100,000, and a principal operator who
      reports farming as his/her primary occupation.
      5. Farming occupation/higher-sales farms have
      market value of agricultural products sold of
      between $100,000 and $249,999, and a principal
      operator who reports farming as his/her primary
      occupation.
      Other farms are subdivided into three subcategories,
      described below:
      1. Large family farms have market value of
      agricultural products sold between $250,000 and
      $499,999.
      2. Very large family farms have market value of
      agricultural products sold of $500,000 or more.
      3. Nonfamily farms are farms organized as
      nonfamily corporations, as well as farms
      operated by hired managers.
      Farms by age and primary occupation of
      operator. Data on age and primary occupation were
      obtained from up to three operators per farm in 2007.
      When compared with 2002 results, the average age
      of farmers increased significantly. Older operators
      may be “retired” (with little if any sales) and still
      report farming as their primary occupation since they
      often have limited opportunity for off-farm jobs. See
      Primary occupation of the operator.

      Are you now "Big Ag"?

      Perhaps, we should stop with the labels...ya think?

      On a side note: Processors or "middleman" as they seem to be often called are not agriculture. So if that's your definition of "Big Ag", then you should rethink the terminology. It doesn't fit.

    1. I made a point one night on twitter and was told I was trying to cloud the issue, but I will try to make it again.
      PERSPECTIVE.
      To a man with 3 cows to milk, the man who has 100 cows is a "factory farmer" i.e. Big Ag.
      The same applies to crops, to the person with a 1000 sq ft garden, a person with a 2 acre garden is HUGE!
      I've seen operations small and large that were responsibly operated, and I've seen operations small and large that were irresponsibly operated.
      As far as "middlemen", well they are sometimes a necessity. And they are not all evil, otherwise why would someone want to be "middleman"

    1. The typology you choose to frame your points reveals a great deal about both the way you want the discussion to go and also the premises that originate your argument.

      You're really onto something with "Big Ag". The people that use that term could always counter with the "Family Farm" term, though, which is just another way to use your frame of reference to shape the debate.

      The "Big Ag" viewpoint suggests that there are powerful interests in agriculture who are cold and heartless about both the things they produce, the resources used to produce it and the people who consume it. Big Business is a ready analogy. There is an element of truth in this: Farm consolidation has correlated with troubling trends in rural communities (I'm thinking of the 80's here), less information reaching consumers and a rise in a resourse intensive "business model" in farming, but it misses the point entirely about how large farmers can also be caring, responsible farmers.

      I would suggest that a more important factor in explaining irresponsible practices is the reduced margins in commodity operations due to the corporate producers of seeds/inputs and buyers of finished product squeezing the farmers to increase their profits. Blaming large-scale farmers/ranchers misses the reasons they might feel the need to cut corners or find shortcuts.

      The same goes with Family Farms on the other side of the debate. It stops the discussion cold, because how could someone rail against a family farm? That would be evil! Well, even a farm owned by a single family can engage in some pretty terrible practices.

      There is a turkey operation upstream from a guy I know who bred horses. The horse farm is basically out of business now due to some very serious run-off problems and the health implications for his horses. It is interesting that the Turkey operation is family owned, while the horse operation had investors.

      The horse farm is certainly larger, but in terms of money, it is broke while the Turkey farm...illustrates my point earlier: They make next to nothing producing birds on very little land (not big $ and not big area, but standard CAFO concentrations, so maybe big in terms of bird population, I guess). They are a pretty poor family to start with and their margins are razor thin, so they don't do the upkeep, install the right equipment etc. I've been led to believe that they are under constant threat of having their contract cancelled due to missing their production quotas, so they're willing to do almost anything (it seems).

      Are they Big Ag? Are they a Family Farm? The "hot" terms don't help with this...unless the turkey buyers are "Big Ag"? Would "Big Ag" help us understand that, by condensing a lot of detail, or would it make people feel defensive? Would it help us lay blame more accurately, or pull our eyes away from the real problem?

    1. Nate,

      I have a question before I get to my thoughts about defining “BigAg.” It’s in regards to Harris Ranch and Pollan. Do you think that if someone from Harris Ranch were to be giving a lecture that they would voluntarily request to have other people speak to ensure a “balanced discussion?”

      Now on to Big Ag. I can only speak from my own opinions and views, so I’m not sure of other’s thoughts, but when I think of Big Ag I see it in a similar way that we speak of The Big 3 automakers. When someone uses the term “Big 3” they aren’t speaking about the people working on the lines piecing cars together. They are speaking of the business practices of the companies who employ the workers. In my mind, this is how I see Big Ag. I don’t use this term to speak about the farmers as individuals, but about the practices and philosophies that they may or may not hold. When we started to see that the Big 3 automakers were falling apart financially we weren’t questioning the workers choice of careers, rather we questioned the business practices that led them to that place.

      One of the practices that I see Big Ag using is enslaving farmers through fear and debt. And this is most clearly seen in Eastern and developing countries. Western Ag companies have gone into India with claims of great harvests. The farmers go into debt to these companies for their seed and if they cannot repay the debt they lose their land. There have been a reported 200,000 farmer suicides in the past decade because the debt was too great. The philosophy of Big Ag is that the farmers shouldn’t have taken on debt they couldn’t repay. It’s the farmer’s fault, Big Ag says, and there is nothing wrong with this system.

      I mentioned before that I don’t use the term to speak about farmers specifically. I do have an exception for that. Since Big Ag is a philosophical view; farmers who share these views fall in the category of Big Ag. Not because they are farmers, but because they are choosing to subscribe to those practices.

      What I find interesting is that when people who do not self-identify themselves as Big Ag become defensive with how that phrase is used. If it doesn’t apply to them, then why should they be so defensive?

      This is a great question to ask, Nate. I hope more people take the time to answer.

    1. Kevin,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to provide feedback. We need everyone engaged in a fruitful (no pun intended) discussion on food and farming.

    1. Johns Custom Meats (may I call you that? :)

      As always, a wonderful and thoughtful response meant to educate and engage. I appreciate the detail, I mean It - I LOVE detail. Your post also shows that it is very difficult to place someone in a box in agriculture. Thanks again and I will see you in the twitterverse.

    1. Nelson,

      Thanks for the feedback. We could all use a little perspective! That applies to all of life as well. As you state, perspective has a big impact.

    1. Ryan,

      Great feedback. In short, I believe the answer to your questions in the last paragraph is Yes. Terms do all the things you mention, which is why it is difficult to assign them in complex systems. What I think we have agreement on is that it is about ethics and business practices. If we go that route, your situation mentioned above would be easier to deduce and "solve"

      Thanks again for reading and a thoughtful response back. Let's keep the food discussion moving forward with open,honest dialog.

    1. Stephen,

      Thanks for your thoughtful feedback. I do appreciate it.

      Good question about the balancing..Probably not, but I certainly cannot speak for Harris. I feel comfortable saying that is a panel was suggested, it would be taken up. We in #ag, for the most part, take part in open discussions so we can share our story. Very good point about the shoe being on the other foot

      You and I agree. Business practices and ethics are what people should look at. The issue is that most consumers do not spend the time to educate themselves and catch bits and pieces here and there; those pieces are always bad. So what happens when the Big-Ag term is casually thrown out is consumers get a bad taste in their mouth for farmers. The separation isn't made between bad and good.

      Example: I will use interactions on Twitter. Recently there has been talk about the #agchat 7 #Profood communities participating in a forum. At face value, this sounds fine; however, I will hold off on this until more details are fleshed out. Tweets were sent out to the twitterverse about Big-Ag vs #Profood, and immediately following more tweets asking for @FarmerHaley to participate. What is one to take away from that? If not involved, it is pretty darn simple. @FarmerHaley is the Big-Ag representative. I just have a problem with that because, based on his practices and ethics, this is FAR from the truth.

      This also can help explain your other question about taking offense. Instances like these have taken place on numerous occasions so...

      Many thanks again for your response. I like open dialog. I hope to interact more.

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    Agriculture passionado! I lead GeoVantage's Sales, Marketing, and Business Development activities. If you haven't explored the benefit of remote sensing for production agriculture, now is the time! Not one to rest, I am also a part of the Memes Associates team where we focus on assisting large companies in the agriculture space to "re-discover their inner entrepreneur" through the introduction of market disrupting technology(s) and services.  

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