Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Big, Bad...Family Farms?!?!?!

Trolling twitter the other day, I heard some more of the typical anti big-ag rants; Monsanto is the devil, Tyson is running farmers out of business, Cargill is evil. I find all these statements humorous, even if they are a little disturbing to read. But what is more amazing, is how hypocritical some of these people are-they praise the family farm, family business, local co-op, local market. But when do you transition, at least in most peoples minds, from family-whatever to corporate, and why the demonetization when it happens?

In the 1930's, there were hundreds of companies building cars, trucks, tractors, and refigerators. Today, there are a handful. But do you see people on the net bemoaning the death of Packard to that wicked tyrant Henry Ford? Hell no. No one cares about Packard. So why the connection with food? I mean, most people spend more time each day thinking about their car, or using their car, than they do food. Why food? Keep that one in mind, that'll be another blog. But for now, back to our point-when do you make the jump from family to corporate?

When you talk about family to "corporate" transition in American Ag, I love to talk about Cargill. For those of you who don't know, Cargill is the largest privately owned company on the planet. It was founded in the 1860's by Mr. Cargill, his brothers, nephews, and ultimately his son in law, John MacMillian. Today, Cargill is still owned and controlled by the Cargill and MacMillian families. So why did they grow so large? The same reason Henry Ford started building factories-it's the American Way. Capitalism rewards risk and hard work-and both demonstrated this. Cargill wanted a better life for his family, stable work for his children, and a company that his great-grandchildren could depend on. Is that all bad?

When my family and I meet and discuss our vision and mission statements, and our goals for the future, they are pretty simple. To create a viable, sustainable business for future generations of our family. To us, that means we need to grow, expand, incorporate. We need to make sound fiscal and environmental decisions everyday to ensure our profitability and survival. When we buy a tractor, we work off extremely conservative economic models-what if prices crash? What if we lost acreage? Can we pay cash? If not, how fast can we pay for it? We believe these principals make us strong and smart.

So, I ask you, are we corporate, or are we family? We have full time employees who do a sizable share of the work for us, but we are still the owners, and we make all the management decisions (aside from menial day-to-day decisions). We personally have the capital at stake. But we realize that our talents are not utilized best in the cab of a tractor. Are we wrong for that?

Until the 1960's, Ford Motor Company is still more than 50% family owned. Henry Ford the Second (Hank the Deuce) ran the company, and his brothers, uncles, and cousins sat on it's board. Were they family run? At that level, yes. But would anyone call them a family business? Doubtful. So that's the final question I post-are we ready to lump families who have grown beyond a nostalgic 1960's era image on their farms into the same league as Ford or GM? I hope not.


  1. Great blog! It sums up the issue so well. Why is it bad for farmers to make a living and have profitable businesses in America? Things that make me go "hmm..."!

  2. Excellent perspective. Thanks for sharing the firsthand point of view of a modern day farm. MPK

  3. Appreciate your POV. In my opinion, when a family company crosses the threshold is when they offer to buy the rights to another farmers farm name & farm story to use as their own to sell more product on the backs of American consumer's perception.

    Size doesn't matter but ethics does.

  4. Fair enough John-I see your point.

    Thanks for the feedback.