John Phipps Says A Lot

We came across this article in the Perspectives section of a publication we receive, Top Producer. He discusses the standing of farm production among other industry occupations and rankings: farming is now a “Big” in the way that oil, banking, and other industries have been dubbed as “Big”.

Does the change-over from smaller operation to joint-venture and aggregated leases mean a paradigm shift for all farmers, does it mean an acceptance of “Big” industry? Chime in – we would love to see what you think.

By John Phipps 12/4/2009: Welcome to the Bigs

Sometime in the past decade or so, agriculture has achieved a dubious status: We have become a “Big.” We now stand in the ranks of Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Government, Big Labor, Big Auto, Big Industry, Big Finance, Big Banking, Big Pharma and others. Big Ag is now a common label across the media. Google it and see.

The usage of this pejorative is hard to pin down. Why isn’t there a Big Chemical, or Big Insurance? Too many syllables? I suspect it is a matter of media exposure, which our industry has always welcomed, seeing it as an answer for many problems.

To be sure, we have been partially carried along as the middle seatmate of Big Grain and Big Agribusiness, but regardless, our actions in the past few years have firmly demonstrated our willingness to be included.

Growing Split. Most notable is the widening philosophical and political split between industrial (Big) farming and agrarian operations. While we have always been uneasy brethren, now the gloves are off. Observe the rancorous opposition to the National Animal Identification System by small producers as they rail against supportive organizations that mostly represent larger producers. Consider the organic/local farm groups as they attack large industrial farms with the most contemptible label at hand: Big Ag.

Another issue dividing farmers is preemptive animal care legislative efforts such as Issue 2 in Ohio. Once again, Big Agriculture is the protagonist and “small ag” is unconvinced.

This would be a mere curiosity if it were not so ironic. For most of my career, farmers in my category (assuming I have one) have been against Bigs of all types. Good grief—how could we have launched the great ethanol campaign without ranting against Big Oil with every other breath?

Suddenly, we are they. And soon, more people outside our industry will label my farm Big Ag. They will be accurate, I think. The fact that we have used size as a way to judge moral and social worth has looped around to bite us firmly in the you-know-where. In the strictest sense of the word, and certainly by historical standards, our operations are big. And we want them to grow bigger!

Of course, Big has always been a thinly disguised substitute for Bad. Now, the more we attack other Bigs, the more ammunition we provide to those who object to the size of own businesses.

Political Power. Most importantly, Big is vitally linked to industries that achieve significant success lobbying Congress, despite actual voting numbers. This may be the most pertinent linkage for farmers, as our legislative success with subsidies, mandates and preferential treatment is wildly disproportionate to our paltry numbers (a few hundred thousand industrial producers) or GDP contribution (about 1%). If you’re Big in Washington, you’re Big. Period.

As our new label becomes common usage, look for the baggage we threw on Big adversaries in the past to ricochet back on our image. Already, mainstream media parse between Big Ag and agrarian ag, making it more unlikely industrial producers can huddle behind the rustic disguise that has been our cover for too long.

Adding to this trend is our in-house admonishment to “speak with one voice.” The unison chorus is one classic hallmark of a Big, such as Big Labor, which farmers have derided for years. Big requires message discipline—or, more bluntly, lockstep submission to groupthink. We now embrace this brand because we value unanimity more than independent thought, I would say. The ethanol debate is a clear example of how Big Ag tolerates internal dissent.

Perhaps this can be seen as a maturation milestone for our industry. We’re held in the same esteem as world-spanning, government-manipulating and power-accumulating groups like labor and oil.

The problem is, what new epithet can we use for them now?

Mr. Phipps hosts the US Farm Report and can be reached by emailing  johnphipps at gmail dot com.