Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Farming Family

“Family” itself is a difficult term to define: there is immediate family, extended family, family in-law, and then those we refer to as family but who actually have no relation through either blood or marriage.  Defining “Family farm,” as it turns out, is even more difficult—whether it is in an academic or “real-world” setting. 

Today we visited two centennial farms—agricultural establishments which have been in existence for over 100 years: The Pasches identify their farm as a dairy outfit, and indeed it appears that most of their income and daily activity is centered around the milking industry, while the Grahams identify themselves as organic farmers who cover a wide scope of activity from feed production, meat processing, as well as beef and poultry raising.  Both farms also identify themselves as “family farms,” but it became clear today on our journey back to East Lansing that how “family” is defined depends greatly on our own cultural context.  To Abe Pasch, his was a family farm on account of his great-grandfather having started the dairy in 1910, who then passed it on to Abe’s grandfather, who then passed it on to Abe’s father and uncle.  Abe now shares co-ownership with his father and uncle and spoke briefly as to the possibility of his younger brother joining the operation in the future.  In this respect, the farm does indeed appear to be family-run, but questions arose as to whether the fact that the Pasches employ 12 individuals from outside the family to help handle daily duties invalidates their claim to be a “family farm.”  Does “family farm” necessarily imply that all labor must be supplied by family members?  Does it imply that at least the majority of labor must be supplied by family members?  These are challenging qualifications to make, and it seemed that none of us in that car shared the completely convergent opinions on the matter.  It seems to me that a majority of the labor should indeed be carried by the family members, but with the numbers of cows in the Pasch operation and the limited number of family members available (or willing?) to work this would prove an impossibility.  Should size then be a determining criterion of what makes a “family farm?”  The Pasches seemed to be in complete control of the farm’s operations as opposed to the farm being owned by a corporation or other agribusiness enterprise.  Perhaps the problem is our automatic tendency to contrast “family farms” with factory or industrial farms: we lose sight of the fact that a “family farm” does not necessarily have to be any more ethical, sustainable, environmentally friendly, or socially responsible just because it employs the term “family.”  After all, plenty of unpleasant things can be tied to family functions—think “mafia” or the ever-feared inheritance battle after the passing of the family head.  We might instinctively associate the term “family” with warm visions of a quaint farmhouse and the tight-knit father-mother-son-daughter group which inhabits it, but this is again a romanticized perception of rural agriculture life.  It may exist…it may not.  And if we look at farming as just another form of business (which I believe it is, even with all of the cultural components added in, as there are many similarities with family-owned businesses and family-owned farms) then we should not be surprised to discover a certain complexity in definition, in function, and other. 

The Graham’s operation felt like even less of a family farm to me, despite the fact that the farm was run by the husband-wife-son team of Jim, Pat, and Matt and employed fewer outside workers than the Pasch outfit.  Like the Pasches, the Grahams owned several adjacent farmsteads that they included in the entity of farm operation, but while the Pasches worked in tandem as a brother-brother pairing the Grahams made clear they had little desire to join in partnership with Jim’s brother, who also owns a farm and is considering the switch to organic.  In fact, Jim and Pat spent several minutes expounding on how the division between the brothers took place, relaying that the only real connection was that the father (of Jim and his brother) remained in partnership with both of his sons but that no direct partnership between the brothers was intact.  Ironically, this apparent lack of trust was confounded by Jim’s telling of the verbal contract that exists between him and his son Matt as to the ownership of the farm.  While no degree of partnership between Jim and his brother exists, Jim and Matt have established a bond strong enough to survive the perils of an absent legal contract.  This testifies as to the fortitude of immediate family ties while concurrently disparaging them as well.  Another challenging aspect of the Graham operation as a “family farm” is that of Matt’s sister’s distancing herself purposefully from the outfit.  Pat alluded that she believed her daughter’s estrangement from the family business lies in the relationship between the two children as well as a developed wariness for family collaboration due to past strife between Jim and his brother.  In fact, Jim even suggested that this past strife might be in part due to friction between the two brothers’ wives and admitted that he didn’t know a whole lot of family operations that didn’t experience similar difficulties.  The point is, being “family-owned and operated” doesn’t necessarily mean everything is peachy keen one hundred percent of the time, if at all, and if the “family-operated” part becomes no longer viable due to labor shortage, then “family-owned” might be all that’s left.  So maybe the problem with “family farm” is that the “family” isn’t qualified as either just “owned” or just “operated” or both.  We are allowed to fill in the gaps as we see fit, and that might just come down to how we’ve conceptualized farming while growing up, while reading scholarly articles dissecting the matter, or while living elsewhere for a few years.  

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