Agribusiness and Family Farms
Rolling green pastures, golden wheat fields, healthy chickens and pigs happily scuttling around, a red barn in the distance: this is what most of us envision when we think of a traditional American farm. However, this idyllic image of the “family farm” is rapidly becoming an icon of the past. Due to advances in industrial agriculture over the past several decades, farms have become significantly larger and fewer in number making it increasingly difficult for the small family farms to survive. In 2003, the farms and livestock operations with annual sales of $250,000 or more represented only 8.8% of all farms in the U.S. but were responsible for approximately 73% of total farm sales. The remaining 27% of sales were divided up amongst the other 91.2% of smaller family farms (1).
What exactly is “agribusiness”? And what does it ultimately mean for us, the consumers?
Basically, “agribusiness” refers to businesses that are involved with agriculture. Although this may sound simple, it is actually quite complex. Agribusiness spans a wide range of sectors due to the multifaceted nature of our food system’s supply chain. This includes all areas involved with food production, collection, storage, distribution, processing, and retail.
As each sector of the food supply chain strove for maximum efficiency, our agricultural system became more and more industrialized, shifting away from “small family farming.” Coupling this increasingly economically driven food system with federal legislation like the Farm Bill (which subsidizes commodities) ultimately results in plentiful, affordable food for the consumer. And this is something that people in the US have come to expect. Compared to other high-income countries, Americans spend the least amount of their disposable income on food at home, about 6% compared to 10% in Germany and 13% in Japan, South Korea and France.
For agricultural traditionalists, “agribusiness” has come to mean the “fall of the family farm.” Following such a “corporate” model takes farming and livestock production out of historical context and no longer differentiates these practices from other “big businesses” (2). This industrialized system, they argue, encourages the farmer to be a businessman rather than a steward of the land. While these two goals are not mutually exclusive, they can be very difficult to balance.
Although this agribusiness boom has contributed to food security and the low cost of food in our country today, it is not without its detriments. Environmental damage such as water contamination, air pollution, soil erosion caused by large-scale operations (CAFOs), excessive pesticide use and monocropping have been well documented. Socially and economically, this industrialization has endangered what the Association of Family Farms calls the “agriculture of the middle” (3). The few “big farms” are putting smaller farmers and ranchers out of business. Also, numerous middlemen have been introduced into the supply chain, which some people argue ultimately means less money for the farmer. Above all (and seemingly most obvious), continued industrialization of our agricultural system will significantly affect our food choices. Because most large farms practice monocropping (growing one type of crop) for “maximum efficiency,” many heirloom varieties are being lost meaning there are fewer and fewer flavors for us to enjoy.
Agribusiness is undoubtedly a topic of controversy and debate. At Bon Appétit Management Company, we believe that industrial agricultural practices today are unsustainable. We are committed to support those farmers and ranchers who embody the traditional environmental, social and economic values of agriculture, those “in the middle.”
1. US Department of Agriculture. National Agricultural Statistics Service. Accessed March 20, 2007.
2. Tillotson JE. Agribusiness--The Backbone of our Diet. Nutrition Today 41(5):235.
3. The Association of Family Farms. Why Worry About the Agriculture of the Middle? Accessed March 20, 2007.