Big Ag Equals Family - Food Dialogues

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Big Ag Equals Family


The romanticized view of a family farm or ranch is a small acreage, a menagerie of farm animals and a large garden with abundant produce to feed the family for an entire year. Many of our ancestors farmed and did what they could to keep only their family sustained. Today, two percent of the population are food producers. Yet, 97 percent of farms are family-owned and are the core of the agriculture industry. We as an industry have to become bigger to sustain YOUR family.

There are over 2.1 million farms in the United States. While 97 percent of farms are family-owned, of those farms, 88 percent are small, family farms. The USDA classifies the size of farms into unique 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). Small family farms have GCFI less than $350,000; midsize family farms have GCFI from $350,000 to $999,999; and large family farms have GCFI of $1 million or more. Small farms are further divided based on whether the principal operator works primarily on or off the farm.

Our ranch is family-owned and considered a midsize family ranch. My parents purchased the ranch over 30 years ago, and more recently, restructured the ownership into a limited liability company (LLC), in which I am a shareholder along with my two siblings. We created an LLC for tax purposes to best manage our land and resources. Being big doesn’t make us bad. It makes us resourceful of what God gave us. It also allows us to better work together. My siblings and I are learning about managing the ranch and take ownership in that because we are shareholders.

We weren’t always an LLC and were not always as big as we are now. Just like other businesses, our family business started with a dream, then education, then moving back to the family ranch, buying land and livestock and expanding to allow other family members to return.

My husband and I were fortunate to return to the family ranch just over two years ago; my brother and his family moved here this fall. We’ve had to diversify and expand to become “bigger” to allow for these changes to occur.

Bigger also doesn’t mean richer. We have good years with good markets; then there are cattle market downturns, and business is tough. Big business matters all across agriculture: 64 percent of all vegetable sales and 66 percent of all dairy sales come from the three percent of farms that are large or very large family farms.

I recently had a friend tell me that her young daughter said, “Mom, I want to marry rich. I’m going to marry a rancher. They have to be rich because they have so many cows and you have to have a lot of money to buy a lot of cows!” This really made me chuckle – but there is a sad truth that this is how some people may view farmers and ranchers. We are capital rich, but cash poor.

We raise cattle because it is what we love to do. My husband and I left good-paying jobs to start ranching. We are able to raise our son doing what we love and instill a sense of pride raising food for the other 98 percent. We are “big ag.” But big ag means family, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Kelsey Pope is part of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s Digital Voices Council. All opinions expressed are the writer’s own. Funded by one or more checkoff programs.