The Survival Of Family Farms Hangs In The Balance
As I pen this, my kids and husband are playing down by the creek in the pasture hills, where our cow-calf pairs graze peacefully.
It’s a blessed life, rich in so many things we hold dear.
Rooted in faith and family, grounded in humility as we take on the volatility and risks that come with production agriculture, and focused on raising the best cattle we can while nurturing the natural resources under our care.
Equally rewarding as it is challenging, this life in the beef cattle business isn’t an easy one. It requires incredible grit, determination, sacrifice, and hard work. For anybody involved in raising livestock on the land, you know very well the cost — the blood, sweat, and tears that gets poured into this business.
Yet, it’s our passion, our purpose, our calling. We love what we do. We embrace the challenge. We savor the opportunity to work alongside our loved ones. We are motivated to improve the genetics, enhance the landscape, and create a high-quality beef product to serve people in our communities.
As much as we love this way of life and this business, some recent census data troubles me greatly. In the last 20 years, we have lost 75% of our feedlot owners in this country. Every year, 1,300 cow-calf producers and stockers call it quits. We lose more than 2,000 family-owned dairy farms annually, as well.
For every $1 earned in the consumer retail space, only eleven cents trickles back to the producer. Meanwhile, 85% of our meat supply is held captive by four major packers, some foreign-owned.
And in a staggering statistic, I have learned that every 37 minutes in the United States, another family farm shuts down operations, for good.
These numbers keep me awake at night, as I try to look at the big picture and the factors that play into this rapid decrease in the number of families involved in raising our food.
It’s death by 1,000 cuts really — land prices skyrocketing as investors and developers step into the space, burdensome regulations, government overreach, climate change tyranny, animal rights activists, media propaganda, corporate monopolies squeezing out the little guy, and the list goes on.
Here’s the kicker — every time a family moves off the land and exits this incredible agricultural business we know and love, it creates a dangerous and vulnerable position for our food supply.
In the pursuit of the being “bigger, better, and more efficient” to keep the cost of goods at the lowest possible price possible for the American public and for people around the world, we are also creating a food system that is highly corporatized and centralized. We lose that robust diversity that makes American agriculture so strong and admired around the world. And there will be a great cost for all of us if this trend continues.
With fewer and fewer in the food and agriculture space, we are absolutely not too big too fail. We saw this during Covid, where our food chain revealed huge cracks in the system. Truckers were’t moving goods. Plastic packaging was stuck on ships in ports somewhere. Processing plants were shutting down or slowing operations as outbreaks occurred.
Surely, even as things bounce back to "normal," I’m not the only one who remembers these issues. And yet, even as our “just in time” food system showed its vulnerabilities, farmers and ranchers kept doing what they do best. We weren’t short on supply, but our centralized food system left bare shelves and consumers asking more questions about their food.
As I lay out this big picture, here’s the takeaway — these statistics may be troubling and the challenges may be great, but that’s where the opportunities lie, as well. To me, now is the time to double down on the beef cattle business. Now is the time to keep and retain heifers. Now is the time to lean into the work that many shy away from. Now is the time to tell your story. Now is the time to connect and build community.
But if we are going to do that — we must also have a marketing plan. We have to stretch ourselves to discover new pathways to profitability. We have to look at the big picture, identify the problems that exist, and seek to be solution-providers for those we aim to serve. We must become price-makers instead of price-takers, and treat our farms and ranches, not just as a huge hobby that allows the perfect setting to raise kids, but also as a viable business focused on service, value, and profitability.
I certainly don't have all the answers, and I don't hold the perfect blue print, but I'm well aware of the battle ahead and am certain farm and ranch families have a lot of fight in them to face the challenges coming our way.
Let this be an encouragement to you -- that will grit, tenacity, a solid game plan, and a whole lot of faith -- we can accomplish anything, for the good of our families, our farms/ranches, our food supply, and the communities we love to serve.