|What is it about the size of something that makes us love it or hate it? Why do we prefer something just because it is either very large or very small, as if size in itself confers a value or moral superiority to an item? Yet, we make value judgments all the time based on whether something is large or small.
Take farms for example. Judging from the e-mail I get, a lot of you feel big farms are bad and small farmers are good. A recent note from a reader named Harold said “intelligent people don’t trust multinational corporations.” Why? When it comes to building military hardware, we trust large corporations. When it comes to lifesaving drugs, we trust multinational corporations. When was the last time you gave your prescription to a guy who made up the medicine in his basement, instead of going to CVS and buying an Eli Lilly product?
Yet when it comes to food, the size of the farm that grew it, the number of employees it had, and the nationality of the farmers are perceived to have an effect on the safety and quality of the food produced. Conversely, the larger the store that sells the food, the more we like the store. Wal-Mart, Cub, Costco, Super Target and others have created vast warehouses of food offering low prices and ridiculous variety. While visiting a Wal-Mart Superstore recently, my son counted 340 varieties of breakfast cereal, 57 varieties of orange juice, 42 different types of popcorn, and 108 different kinds of cookies. These monuments to retail obesity have replaced the local IGA that was low on variety, but where the cashier knew your name.
In another ironic twist, large companies are now singing the praises of small farms. Columnist Susan Allen recently pointed out that the Ben and Jerry’s website is a diatribe against corporate farming. The ice cream do-gooders are against any thing that is not small and organic. What makes this stance so obnoxious is that Ben and Jerry sold out to Unilever in 2000 for hundreds of millions of dollars. They are now part of a multinational corporation that owns everything from Birdseye to Dove Chocolate. It seems that the bigger the corporation, the more they are interested in small agriculture.
Starbucks recently took out a full-page ad in the New York Times touting how they buy “some” of their coffee from small coffee farmers. What they failed to mention is how many small local eateries and bakeries their multinational corporation has put out of business.
Now don’t misunderstand me, I am not against small farms, to the contrary I own a small business that helps small farmers market their products. There is also nothing wrong with large farms. This statement will produce a torrent of verbal abuse in some circles.
Large farms have been the favorite doormats for environmental radicals and whole earth types. A decade ago it was large grain farms that poisoned the land with crop protection chemicals and were part of the international grain conspiracy and trilateral commission. Today, it is large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that have fallen under the ire of self-righteously misinformed.
Size seems to be the issue here. If you are a farmer with one barn full of hogs, you are a hero. If you replicate that barn 20 times, you become a villain. Communities that would welcome small family livestock operations would refuse to allow larger operations. It is likely that 100 small farmers would bring the same number of animals to a county as 10 large operations, but with much different consequences. Both groups would generate the same amount of manure, but since smaller farms are not regulated or inspected as severely as larger operations, the smaller farms could pose a greater environmental risk to the area than the large farms.
Some small farm proponents are using this bias against bigness to promote their cause. I recently received an invitation to attend a meeting about small scale farming and direct marketing, and the reason given for attending was to show my distain for large scale agriculture. The people who take this tact are doing a disservice to small farms. Large-scale production and small-scale farms are two different systems with vastly different advantages. Large farms produce large amounts of a uniform product at low prices; the small farm produces high quality, unique products at higher prices. Both can and should survive and thrive.
Producers and consumers must disregard this size discrimination. Farming operations, large and small, should be judged on what they produce and how they produce it. Big is not inherently bad, and small is not intrinsically good.
Published in the November 30, 2005 issue of Farm World.