Who are you calling a corporate farmer?

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May 16, 2012 - 7:00pm

Editor's note: You can't feed the growing world population without farmers. But there are serious questions today about who will take on the job a few decades from now. Farmers are getting older, and technological, cultural and political forces are bringing immense changes to those who build their lives around the land.

In this weeklong special report on "The Farmer of the Future," Harvest Public Media and NET News look at how some of those forces may play out over the next few years. Tune in every day this week for radio reports, culminating Friday, May 18th with the NET News documentary "Hispanic Farmers on Broken Ground," airing on NET1/HD at 7 p.m. CT.

A surprising thing happens while touring Chris Boeckmann's turkey farm, where 50,000 birds are grown each year for Cargill Inc.

After seeing the huge brooder barn, after looking into a second enormous facility for the older birds and after spying the Cargill sign, the obvious conclusion is that this is a corporate farm.
 

Photo by Peggy Lowe, Harvest Public Media

Chris Boeckmann is a hybrid farmer who works with the large multinational corporations that control the agricultural markets, but also responds to increasing consumer demand for "natural" food.


Then the tour takes a turn in the opposite direction.

After a drive past those barns and down a rambling, gutted road, out on the rest of Boeckmann's 185 acres, is a small herd of cattle. Unlike his turkeys, Boeckmann is raising these 50 animals without hormones or antibiotics and they are roaming freely in pristine pastures.

Huh?

"When I talk to people about the beef production, I get that exact reaction. Well, aren't you working both sides of the fence?'" Boeckmann said. "And quite frankly, yeah, we are."

Boeckmann is a good example of the way food production is trending these days, a hybrid farmer who works with the large multinational corporations that control the agricultural markets but who is also responding to consumers increasing demand for "natural" food.

"There's seems to be a bifurcation," said Harvey S. James, Jr., an associate ag economics professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "If you look at trends in the number of farms, we're seeing an increase in the number of very large farms and the very rapid increase in the number of very small farms."

Boeckmann has been raising turkeys for Cargill, which is among the top four companies producing turkeys in the U.S., for 25 years. He signed with the company in 1987, soon after he took over his family's farm in Loose Creek, Mo., about 15 miles east of Jefferson City.
 


Ag operations get bigger

The mid-aggregate enterprise size for major agricultural commodity operations in the U.S. has been rapidly increasing. At the levels shown in the charts below, half of all animals or acres harvested are on larger farmers, and half of all animals raised or acres harvested are on smaller farms.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service


About that same time farms began the intense concentration of markets, producing ever larger amounts of food. The median-sized poultry operation (half producing less, half producing more) for example, grew from 300,000 birds a year in 1987 to 681,600 birds in 2007, an increase of 127 percent, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Production of hogs, cattle, dairy and field crops also grew exponentially.

Running a large operation for a corporation has its pros and cons. Boeckmann's contract with Cargill lessens his risk in a risky business, giving him an annual income he can count on, he said. But on the negative side, the contract is strict and he must abide by Cargill's dictates.

"Kind of a common joke among poultry producers is that we're just contracted labor and a lot of time it's referred to as that," Boeckmann said. "It doesn't matter if you're talking about the poultry industry or contract hogs or swine. Realize that the corporation owns the birds, so they have total control of genetics. They manufacture and make the feed. They have total control of nutrition."

That negative feeling is not just with farmers. The term "corporate farming" took on a bad connotation after films like "Food, Inc." and Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma" criticized large industrial agribusiness. Consumers noticed and began increasingly demanding food free of drugs, raised in an environmentally friendly way and using production methods that consider animal welfare.

Suddenly the locally grown food movement took off, growing into a $7 billion business last year, up from $4.8 billion in 2008. A new food culture emerged, with fresh food growing by nearly 7 percent from 2003-2009 and packaged foods declining by 2 percent, according to the Hartman Group, a research and consulting firm for the food and beverage industries.

"We believe what is going on in American food culture has been a long-term shift towards wanting higher quality and fresher-tasting and fresher-feeling foods that do not have ingredient panels with 100 words on them," said James Richardson, a senior vice president at the Hartman Group.

But here's what those same consumers might not know: the term "corporate farming" is a bit ambiguous out in farm country, where a corporation might simply be a long-established family with a large crop or livestock operation. Incorporating the farm, James said, is simply a legal way to protect the family.

"People who work and run these large farms see themselves as farmers," James said. "They wear the cowboy boots, they have the hats. They're in rural America. They're the neighbors. It's just a more rationalized large-scale operation."
 


Photo by Peggy Lowe, Harvest Public Media

CUTLINE


Boeckmann is in a similar situation, although on a much smaller scale. He incorporated his beef operation this year and is selling under his Boeckmann Family Farms label to local customers, restaurants and groceries.

Although his beef customers are asking for natural turkeys, Boeckmann said he can't do that - yet. His Cargill contract stipulates that he can't raise any other birds on his farm. But he is exploring that option, he said, and time will tell.

"It's something that in the long run, we might take a serious look at. Is that the direction we want to go? There's obviously pros and cons and I don't have the answer for that yet, where we intend to go," he said. "But it's definitely something the consumers may drive us in one direction or another, over time."

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