What’s the Fuss About Corporate Agriculture?

Tractor in the sunrise

One of the boogey men of our food system is ‘corporate agriculture’. But, like most boogey men there is more myth than reality.

Let’s start at the farm level. The 2012 US Census of Agriculture indicates that 0.55% of America’s farms are non-family corporations. These non-family corporations control 1.36% of America’s farmland. Not exactly corporate control is it? Only 5.06% of US farms are even incorporated at all. This is usually done for tax purposes. Of all ‘corporate farms’ in America the vast majority have less than ten stockholders. Hardly a behemoth. The stats are actually higher for Canada. That’s right, there are more corporate farms in Canada than in the US.

When we used to grow tomatoes there were over 600 growers and about eight processors. Where do you think the ‘corporate’ part of corporate agriculture began? Right. At the processor level. It funnels down pretty quickly. As long as there were chumps like me willing to take all that risk, why would the corporate guys do the growing part?

Isn’t it a natural part of modern economies and capitalist systems that there will be this kind of conglomeration? Tomato canneries and any large food system is going to be capital intensive. Somebody has to build or buy a factory. I suppose we could do it through cooperatives. Co-ops are popular in farm country. Blue Diamond almonds is one of the most famous. Blue Diamond is marketing co-op that is owned by the farmer members. But, they are not a cure all. Co-ops are only as good as the management that run them.

Even Greenpeace understands that if there is corporate control, it is not really at the farm level. My disagreement with Greenpeace is they say, “This represents s few powerful companies dictating industry protocols to millions of small farmers, small suppliers — and to consumers.” Really? Business guys are really pretty simple- we follow the markets. Demand creates supply. Those guys aren’t producing processed foods for grins and giggles. They produce what we say we want. Do you want to change what is in the stores? It is very simple-change what you buy. The power of your buying habits are what drive the markets. Some of my foodie friends are upset that there is so much junk food out there. Do you know why? We buy more Cheetos than we buy organic fruit. It’s that simple. If you want more organic fruit in your store demand they stock it and buy it when it is there. It’s that simple. I guaranty even the corporate boogey men will respond.


 What subsidies?

Another boogey man in the system is the question of farm subsidies. Farm subsidies were New Deal programs started during the Great Depression. The goal was to stabilize farm prices so food was produced and farmers stayed on the land instead of joining the unemployed in the cities. There are three facts about farm subsidies that are important to remember.

  1. Farm subsidies have largely been eliminated. It took a while, but apparently you can actually strangle a government program.
  2. Those subsidies, only covered major crops like corn, wheat, soybeans, milk and mohair. (Yes, goat fur.)
  3. Lastly, when I was Fresno County Farm Bureau President the number we used was that farm subsidies accounted for 10% of net farm income nation wide, and less than 2% of net farm income in California. The reason was our production is so diverse. Subsidies never applied to peaches, plums, nectarines, grapes and the 400 other crops we grow here in California.

There were some horrible stories in the 80’s of non-farmers getting subsidies. News reporter Sam Donaldson supposedly got a huge check from the government for growing mohair from goats. That kind of silliness was wrong and should never have happened.

Larger farms are part of a natural evolution as more and more people over the last century have left the farm and moved to the cities. Today less than 2% of the American population live and work on farms. It is natural that farms are going to get bigger. Has the corporate boogey man taken over agriculture? I don’t think so. Less that 1% of our farms are owned by large corporations. At the consumer level, the power of your purse drives the system more than any corporate boardroom on the planet.

Paul BetancourtBy Paul H. Betancourt – Kerman, CA
Paul is a professor of American Government at Madera Center Community College in Madera, California. He also teaches US Constitution, Critical Thinking, Business Ethics & World Religions at the University of Phoenix in Fresno, California. Paul has been very active in his community, co-founding the Kerman Community Food Bank, serving on the Board of the Kerman Unified School District and the Valley Clean Air Now Board, and served as Fresno County Farm Bureau President from 2000 – 2002. His wife’s family has been farming in Kerman, California since 1912, and Paul is a managing partner of the family operation, VF Farms.
Copyright © July 2015

Works Cited-

Greenpeace-Corporate Control of Agriculture http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/agriculture/problem/Corporate-Control-of-Agriculture/

Hoppe, R.A. 2014. Structure and finances of U.S. farms: family farm report, 2014 edition. United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service EIB-132.

Jump up^ Statistics Canada. 2011 Census of Agriculture.