By Dan Cassidy
“Big Ag” is a term used often in the media. While its meaning is shrouded in mystery, the term is usually not said in a positive context. Users of the term are generally outspoken critics of U.S. food policy, national agriculture leaders or large farm organizations. Keen readers will notice a pattern, as writers who use the term also seem to make references to “Factory Farms,” CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and “Puppy Mills.” The common denominator appears to be that Big Ag is somehow both anti-consumer and anti-environment.
So is Big Ag a reference to the size of a farm? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in 2017, the average farm in Missouri was 293 acres. Production expenses averaged $83,598 and net cash income was $20,053. So if you own a farm with more than 293 acres, are you simply considered larger than average, or are you now Big Ag? Or if a farm produces 50 acres of pumpkins and its net income is greater than average, should it be considered Big Ag?
Perhaps Big Ag is a reference to business structure and synonymous with farms owned by corporations. But according to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, almost 98 percent of Missouri farms are owned by families, individuals, partnerships or family-held corporations.
Could it be a reference to agribusiness? Maybe this is a dig not at farmers, but at the companies who develop new seed, herbicides, tractors or irrigation equipment. Maybe it’s a way of calling out the companies who finish our cattle, purchase our grain or transport our commodities. Yes, agribusinesses usually belong to trade associations who represent their interests, but it doesn’t serve them well to pursue policies detrimental to family farms.
Big Ag is sometimes used to describe farm organizations that don’t align with an individual’s view on a particular issue. It seems some writers use the term in conjunction with issues such as commodity checkoffs, international trade agreements and commodity programs in the farm bill. Yet this ignores the fact family farmers are the ones who develop the policies advocated by the organizations.
Ultimately, it would seem the term Big Ag is used as an amalgam of all the above; a triumvirate of large farms, multinational corporations and national farm groups working against the needs of family farmers. This is far from the truth. Those who try to disparage farmers by promoting the term Big Ag would be better served by participating in the process than calling names.