My Generation
Dear World: Please Stop Casting 'Family Farmers vs. Everyone Else'

Dear World: Please Stop Casting 'Family Farmers vs. Everyone Else'

Agriculture is full of nuance; it's not black and white, and it's not family farmers vs. big farmers. So why does general media persist in say it is?

I like a good cattle show. I like what it teaches my kids. I like working with an animal until it understands what you want it to do. I like the history of it all. I like that the vast majority of my childhood memories - with friends or family - involve a barn, a wash rack, a tie out or a hay rack. And I love the people. 

So I was intrigued by a Washington Post piece on show pigs. I could get on board with the headline, "Swine for Sale: How Kids' Livestock Shows Became a Cutthroat (and Expensive) Business." Yes. We are entrepreneurs and capitalists here in America, even in the country. If there's money to be made, we'll find a way to make it. You've got a market for that pig? Go for it.

Show rings: site of big dollars and big competition, but not always in that order.

But it was the subhead that got me: "Family farmers are struggling in the new world of livestock shows, where the best animals are bought online."

Deep, deep sigh.

Here…we go…again. "Family farmers" vs. The World.

To recap: the story starts with the tale of a young girl who had to buy a leftover pig due to some unfortunate breeding situations. She knew she wouldn't win. From there, the author editorializes to describe her (skewed) historical view of the situation:

"The kids’ frustration isn’t just the underdog’s lament — it also reveals a lot about how farming has changed, and junior livestock competitions along with it. The family farm of the American imagination has all the animals one might want to eat. In the days of small-scale agriculture, farm kids would take their best sheep, pig, goat, or heifer to the fair as their FFA or 4-H project. The competition was about animal husbandry, end-to-end, and the most skilled kid could win.

That’s no longer the case. Fewer kids grow up on farms, and those that do are much more specialized — the number of hog operations fell by 70 percent between 1992 and 2009, for example, while production increased. That means more have to buy half-grown animals to show in livestock competitions, fueling the growth of specialized breeders and pushing up the cost of participation. In the end, those with disposable income can buy a good chance at a ribbon — and those who can’t might just be stuck with the scraps."

After that, the author interviewed a family set to win because they'd spent a lot of money, and a man whose daughter had a surprising win with a low-dollar hog. He talked about their work ethic and what the kids got out of showing - the high point of the story, in my opinion.

"The most expensive pig doesn’t always win — a champion, says patriarch Art Bartenslager, is as much a combination of good genes, the judge’s particular taste, and absolute dedication to the art of animal management. Kids who resent losing, he says, just might not be working hard enough."

So that was good but the real problem lies in the editorializing. As a reporter, the author did a decent job of understanding the surface dynamics of an incredibly insular industry. She can't possibly be expected to understand the differences between junior shows and open shows, between breeding stock and show stock, and between different families and different showing philosophies (apparently).

For me, where it went off the rails was in suggesting it's "us vs. them" - that the poor woe begotten family farmer can't compete and that big ugly industrialized agriculture is to blame. In effect, she tried to paint black and white an industry that is profoundly nuanced, with a generations-long history that plays into decisions made by an individual family.

Let me be very clear here: I do not use all-caps lightly but I am SO OVER this whole family farmer vs. industrialized agriculture thing. I would like to shout from the roof tops, "It's not two different things!" Family farmers can actually be large-scale agriculture. And in this case, the family farmer may well be the guy selling the high-dollar hogs in online auctions and, in a lot of cases, making a killing. Good for them. I'd add there's a better-than-fair chance the guy selling high-dollar show pigs likely grew up on a hog farm that liquidated the hogs in '98 (or before) and this market gave him/her an entry back into the hog business.

What her story missed was the heart of the decision-making question: do we spend money on show animals or not? Her story would lead a reader to believe big farmers and non farmers are spending money hand over fist, leaving the poor family farmer on the wayside. But as anyone who's spent any amount of time showing any specie will tell you, the lines are not so clearly drawn. Whether you're willing to spend big money on show animals depends on your individual philosophy - one that's often been entrenched for generations. Some people will spend a lot; some people won't. Sometimes it's the family farmer doing the buying; sometimes it's the family farmer doing the selling.

Regardless, it baffles me why the general media persists in painting agriculture in black and white terms, when we so clearly are far more nuanced than that. I suspect that the woman who wrote this story knew very little about agriculture, and sought out the two opposite ends of the spectrum when she walked into that hog barn. That's easier. Plus, opposing forces make for good copy. 

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