OUTSTANDING IN HER FIELD: What on earth is a 'factory farm'?

Margo Sue Bittner

Recently, I've seen various Facebook posts, letters to the editor and other mentions of factory farms. The writers are urging support of local farms or locally grown products while bemoaning the number of factory farms. My question is, what is a factory farm?

In New York state, according to the last farm census, among 33,438 farms, 96% are family-owned. Family-owned can mean many things: sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability corporation, and many others. One fun fact: Sole proprietorships account for 82% of farm ownership. Does that mean our organizational system makes us a factory farm?

Let’s look at size. There are 6,866,171 acres in production in New York state. That works out to an average farm being 205 acres. However, 72% of the farms are less than 180 acres. Some farms are larger; 8% are over 500 acres. Is size the determining factor?

How about employees? If a farm employs non-family members, does that make it a factory farm? Overall, 55,000 people are employed directly on farms. Some crops, such as grains, can be mechanically planted and harvested. In order for that to be efficient, farms tend to be larger in size. Fresh fruits and vegetables, for the most part have to be hand picked. There are special techniques to maintain top quality while picking. Some farms hire locally, some bring in migrant or H2A labor. Not every farm is multigenerational. So this is a confusing measure to determine that status.

What about sales? Three-quarters of the farms in New York state have sales of $50,000 or less. According to the state Department of Ag and Markets, the bulk of small farms have sales of $2,500 or less. Fewer than 3% of the farms in New York generate sales exceeding $1million. However, they account for 60% of the total commodity sales. Even though they are family-owned, does that make them factory farms?

If we look at that 96% of family-owned farms, we see that 58,000 people identify themselves as farmers. Thirty-seven percent of them are women. Three-quarters of these farmers have been in production agriculture for more than 10 years and their average age is 57. The majority of them are college educated. Many of them work six or seven days a week. Factories run almost every day. Is that a factor we should use?

When people hear the word "farmer," they often imagine a man in overalls, not very ambitious, with an operation that includes a few animals, a garden and a field of hay. Today’'s farmer is a businessperson. Like any other business, they tend to focus on one commodity area. Using sales as the measure, dairy is the largest segment of New York agriculture. Other top areas include grains, fruit, nursery and vegetables. Farmers look for ways to be efficient, be environmental stewards, and provide us with a safe, diverse, reasonably priced food supply. To me, that is the farthest thing from a factory there is.

Margo Sue Bittner, a.k.a. Aggie Culture, has been involved in Niagara County agriculture for 40 years. She’s had experience in dairy farming, fruit production and wine agri-tourism. Ask her any question about local agriculture and if she doesn’t know the answer herself, she knows who to get it from.

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