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Modern ag is a big tent with many occupants

Modern ag really is a big tent, and there's room inside for many kinds of farming operations.

JK with farmers.jpg
From left, Luke Lillehaugen, Agweek reporter Jonathan Knutson and Maynard Lillehaugen, Luke's father, discuss bottle-feeding baby lambs. Throughout his career, Knutson interviewed and wrote articles about farmers and ranchers spanning many types of agriculture.
Jaryn Homiston / Agweek file photo
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Years ago, I researched and wrote an Agweek cover package on the growing popularity of organic agriculture nationwide. The story was based mainly on a youngish organic farmer who had invested a great deal of time, capital and physical effort into his small area operation. Clearly, at least to me, his farm represented a small but meaningful part of upper Midwest ag, one that deserved respect and attention.

That prompted a phone call from a testy reader, who complained that the profiled farm "wasn't typical" and that Agweek should focus on "normal farms." I asked what's "typical" and "normal." He thought for a few seconds and said, "One with 1,500 to 2,500 acres and that raises corn and soybeans — like my farm." I said that description fit much of Agweek's core audience and that our coverage was focused accordingly. At the same time, "Modern ag is a big tent and farms of all types deserve coverage," I said

That's even more true today than it was all those years ago when I wrote that story. Modern farms increasingly come in so many forms and flavors that generalizing about them is difficult.

They still raise crops, livestock or both. A few raise insects, for animal feed and even human consumption. Well, protein is protein, but personally I'll stick with beef, lamb, ham, pork, turkey and venison. Sure would be fun, though, to write a story about an insect farm.

Most farms remain conventional, but some are organic. And though there isn't space here to address it properly, organic farmers don't share all the same beliefs and practices. Why would they? No two human beings do.

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Technology is a differentiating factor, too. Some farmers and ranchers are more willing than others to embrace it, though hardly any refuse altogether to adopt new tools.

So-called corporate farms, as opposed to family farms, are in play, too — often creating the mistaken perception that giant corporate farms are taking over. The reality is, family farms accounted for 98% of U.S. farms and 86% of farm production in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Yes, indeed, family farms still rock.

Farm size remains controversial

But farm size, I think, is the primary transforming force in modern agriculture. As mentioned already, farms continue to get bigger, leaving an ever-evolving mix of really big, big. mid-sized, small and really small farms, the last sometimes known as "hobby" or "weekend" farms. There's so much disagreement — so much in-your-face passion — on the "right" farm size that I'm tempted to leave it alone. Nor is there sufficient space here to address the issue fully.

Put simply, though, supporters of smaller, more numerous farms say they produce more farm families and stronger rural communities and rural school districts. Advocates of bigger, less numerous farms point to improved economies of scale and better, more efficient management overall. The fact is, there's truth on both sides. And at least for now, there's room for both.

So many types of farms in modern ag — and every single one meaningful to the people involved with them. If you run an 8,000-acre, high-tech farm, it matters to you. If you operate a small flock of sheep on a hobby farm, it matters to you. Conventional or organic, it matters to you.

Yes, it sounds hokey. But it's also true. Modern ag really is a big tent, and there's room inside for many kinds of farming operations. Whatever your type of farm or ranch, best of luck as we begin a new crop season. Whatever your kind of farm, it's important to you — and Agweek, too.

Jonathan Knutson is a former Agweek reporter. He grew up on a farm and spent his career covering agriculture. He can be reached at packerfanknutson@gmail.com.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
Opinion by Jonathan Knutson
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