David Vincent, Director of Public Relations, Rooster Strategic Solutions
In 1900 nearly 40% of the U.S. population was involved in agriculture. Today it’s less than 2 percent. This bit of trivia from the U.S. Census Bureau is an acknowledged fact. Unfortunately there are a number of damaging myths about farming masquerading as facts today, and because the number of farmers and people close to farming has dwindled over the years, many of your non-farm friends may believe them. Give your friends the gift of wisdom this Christmas by exploding some of the more pervasive falsehoods.
Corporate farms have replaced family farms. There are a number of good legal reasons to incorporate a business, including limiting liability and maximizing resources, and many if not most farming operations are incorporated. But according to the U.S.D.A. nearly 99 percent of U.S. farms remain family owned, with the majority held by a single family for several generations. And don’t confuse “big” for “corporate.” Farming today is governed by economy of scale, just like most other industries. Farms are larger because they have to be to remain economically viable. In the 1970s, for instance, a father-and-son farming team could make a good living growing corn and soybeans on 1,000 acres. Today, it takes 5,000 acres to generate the same revenue for that father-and-son team.
Subsidies to farmers increase our food costs. Americans spend less for food as a percentage of income than any other country, and the typical consumer spends less today as a percentage than Americans paid in 1960. Only 10 to 20 percent of this cost – in many cases much less – is returned to the farmer. What’s more, direct pay subsidies for farmers ended several years ago, while production costs eclipse the net returns for many growers when crop prices plummet. Without some form of assistance many of these growers would be unable to continue farming, putting more farmland into the hands of even fewer farmers, and driving up the prices of the low-cost food that we take for granted. Remember that this is the two percent of the population that produces food for the other 98 percent of us – and much of the world for that matter. If any group of people deserves a safety net of some kind from time to time, it is farmers.
You don’t need a college degree to be a farmer. This is true, but with an enormous caveat. Successful farmers today must be masters of agronomics, advanced data collection and analysis, and computer engineering. In fact, the technology required in food and fiber production has created a huge demand for jobs requiring degrees in science, economics, technology, engineering and math.
GMO’s are dangerous. There are many ways to genetically modify a plant or animal in and outside a lab, but the term GMO is restricted to a particular type of genetic engineering that’s very limited. In the U.S. today there are only 10 GMO foods, far fewer than those screaming “Franken-foods!” would have you believe. And these have been heavily tested for more than 30 years, covering more than 1,000 different studies by independent organizations around the world. Not only are GMO’s not dangerous, they allow farmers to grow more crops on less land with fewer chemical inputs. Genetically-modified corn, soybeans, and cotton have been in the U.S. food chain since the 1990s. The sickness and death predicted by some have just not happened, nor will they, because the science is sound.
Farmers abuse their animals because it’s more profitable than treating them humanely. Many of your friends may have seen “hidden camera videos” showing rare and isolated events involving inhumane treatment of livestock, and they might assume it’s the norm. It’s not. Yes, there are bad farmers, just as there are bad lawyers, doctors, and baristas. But successful farmers and ranchers literally depend on their animals for their livelihood and they make every effort to ensure that their animals are safe and productive. That’s just good business. And you have to love animals to begin with if you want to be a rancher, dairyman, or swine or poultry producer.
It takes more energy to produce ethanol than the ethanol yields. According to the U.S.D.A., ethanol plants use 30,000 BTU of thermal energy and 1 kilowatt hour of electricity to produce 1 gallon of ethanol and byproducts, which can produce more than 100,000 BTUs of energy. That’s more than a 3-to-1 yield.
Natural/Organic-farmed produce is healthier. Most people will agree that fruits and vegetables are an important part of your daily diet, but is organic produce really any better than conventional products? No. In fact, the American Cancer Society is one of several leading organizations that have studied the science and declared that eating organic foods has no effect on the rate of cancer rates compared to the output of farms that use conventional farm production methods, including application of pesticides.
Cows are to blame for global warming. Yes, ruminant animals expel methane, but their emissions are a drop in the bucket compared to energy production, wetlands, swamps, and even septic tanks. According to the EPA, methane from livestock accounts for 2.6 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. This is not at all a bad trade off, given we get to enjoy an unlimited selection of meat and dairy products at very reasonable prices.
Agriculture exploits illegal immigrants. There’s no question that migrant workers make up a significant percentage of U.S. farm workers, but as anyone who has hired migrant workers will tell you, there are myriad laws and programs designed to protect workers and ensure they’re housed, paid, and treated fairly. This just makes sense. If your business depends on recruiting and hiring a repeatable labor force you’re going to do everything you can to make sure they’re happy and want to return. And here’s another part of the equation: most Americans don’t want any part of farm work. They don’t want to be in the blazing sun all day driving a tractor, planting, nurturing, and harvesting crops, only to return home filthy, grab a few hours of sleep and then repeat the farm-work ritual the next morning.
All farmers are rich. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I hear this one. Nothing could be further from the truth. Farming isn’t a profession one chooses to get rich. It requires an incredible amount of investment, razor-thin profit margins, and ever-rising production costs, as well as having to manage around the vagaries of weather, crop prices, and other factors that are well beyond the farmer’s control. Most years a farmer sees only a very small net return on investment. So small, in fact, that few other types of businesses would find it acceptable. Some years, there is no return on investment at all. Now, that said, there are years here and there when farmers can do very well – those years when everything comes together because the weather is good and commodity prices are high. But those types of years are few and far between, maybe one year out of seven or ten. And the money a farmer makes in those years has to carry him or her through the bad years, of which there are many more than there are good years.
These are just of the few of the more egregious myths and lies that have proliferated around farming, primarily from the mouths of perhaps well-intentioned folks who haven’t had the opportunity to actually visit much less work on a farm. Those of us who have had the distinct pleasure to work as or among farmers have the responsibility to help set the record straight for our non-farm friends. Please consider giving the gift of ag wisdom this Christmas!
David Vincent has spent 45 years working with blue-chip agricultural companies and agencies in Memphis, New York City, Connecticut, Milwaukee and St. Louis, among other locations. He is currently based in Nashville, Tenn.