IV Press Article 3-19-15 ### Family Farms Dominate Industry

Family-owned farms make up 97 percent of U.S. industry

Posted: Thursday, March 19, 2015 12:10 am


For many Imperial Valley farmers, working the land has long been a multi-generational pursuit, a vocation passed down from grandfathers, fathers and even sons and daughters today.

Yet with time, farming has changed dramatically, gone through significant technological advances and economic ebb and flow, been subject to the whims of global markets, and what many farmers today believe is a move toward more corporate-owned interests.

That last one? That’s the perception, at least. The reality seems to be something entirely different.

Recently the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in tearing apart 2012 industry data, has found that 97 percent of all farming operations in the United States are still family-owned and operated to some degree, a statistic that surprises both longtime family farmers John Kubler and Jack Vessey.

“I didn’t realize it was 97 percent. We hear so much about corporate farming. … My impression is the farmer-owned business would have been less,” said the 90-year-old Kubler, a second-generation Calexico grower.

“In a way it’s comforting to know that the family farms are still hanging on,” said Kubler, whose father began farming in the Valley around the turn of the last century. “I don’t know why, but we start to worry when we believe the farms are being taken over by corporations.”

Family farms are doing more than simply hanging on. They’re thriving according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service report “2012 Census of Agriculture Farm Typology.” 

"As we wrap up mining the 6 million data points from the latest Census of Agriculture, we used typology to further explore the demographics of who is farming and ranching today," NASS Statistics Division Director Hubert Hamer said. "What we found is that family-owned businesses, while very diverse, are at the core of the U.S. agriculture industry.”

Granted, this isn’t Granddad driving a tractor and Mom milking the cows that the USDA used to cull this data. Rather, the data focuses on the definitions of the “family farm” broadened to any farm where the majority of the business is owned by the operator and individuals related to the operator, including through blood, marriage or adoption, according to the report.

The typology report classifies all farms into categories based on three criteria: who owns the operation, whether farming is the principal operator's primary occupation, and gross cash farm cash income (GCFI). These specialized data sets, and inclusion of large-scale farm operations that have family ownership at their core, help to up this percentage. That can be seen in this statistic: 64 percent of all vegetable sales and 66 percent of all dairy sales come from the 3 percent of farms that are large or very large family farms. 

All of these changes, all of this growth and diversification is in line with the evolution of the business seen at the family level. Just ask Jack Vessey.

“You’ve got to remember, we work on a global scale now,” said Vessey, whose family has farmed in California, from Salinas to the Imperial Valley, for four generations. “Sadly, we have to consider economies of scale; it’s a lot different than it was 50 years ago.”

Vessey said infrastructure and technology investments are key in continuing the success of an organization. Even divesting one’s longtime business into key partnerships. The Holtville-area farmer said for many years Vessey & Co. was a grower, shipper and packer, but during the 1980s it was decided that the company’s strength was in growing, joint ventures became important in the shipping and packing.

It’s just another example of 21st-century family farming, a business that just recently added his sister, Vessey said.

Kubler and Vessey come from similar backgrounds, steeped in the American Dream of men who arrived to the Golden State and made a go of it cultivating hardscrabble land. But Kubler and Vessey’s paths will diverge shortly.

Vessey is set up for a continuation of the family business; he is a relatively young man, with his sister now on board, and many years ahead.

For Kubler, however, the family farm ends with him. His dad came to the Valley as a European immigrant who bought a few cows and spread out into growing. Yet his three sons decided long ago to not go into the industry; so Kubler’s business is in its twilight as he sells off land, tenant farms and ramps down operations.

Vessey, and his father and grandfather before him, have had a more pragmatic approach to the business. His grandfather said long ago, “Don’t fall in love with one crop,” which meant to Vessey, be willing to evolve for the sake of the business.

Clearly, that has been a key point taken to heart in modern agriculture. From a purely sentimental point of view, though, Kubler said, “We like to think of farming as being farmer-owned. It makes you feel good to hear this.”

Five Facts to Know about Family Farms

1. Food equals family — 97 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the United States are family-owned operations.

2. Small business matters — 88 percent of all U.S. farms are small family farms.

3. Local connections come in small packages — 58 percent of all direct farm sales to consumers come from small family farms.

4. Big business matters too — 64 percent of all vegetable sales and 66 percent of all dairy sales come from the 3 percent of farms that are large or very large family farms.

5. Farming provides new beginnings — 18 percent of principal operators on family farms in the U.S. started within the last 10 years.

Source: USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture Farm Typology