To understand the heart of a place, one needs to live there, breathe the air, drink the water, smell the ground after it rains. Many of us identify strongly with the place we call home, but none do it with more passion or dedication than farmers and ranchers in Washington.
With media coverage focusing on the big business side of agriculture, it’s easy to assume that many farms dotting America’s countryside are owned and operated by large faceless corporations only interested in making a profit. Bill Gates’ name gets thrown around in land purchases and headlines are made. However, a majority of farms and ranches are owned by families in Washington, many of which have stewarded the land for multiple generations.
Per the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) classification, family farms are “Any farm organized as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or family corporation. Family farms exclude farms organized as nonfamily corporations or cooperatives, as well as farms with hired managers.” Interestingly farms are classified by their gross annual sales, not by their size or acreage. Using this set of classifications, the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Census of Agriculture reports that nearly 96% of farms in the U.S. are family farms…same is true in Washington.
That may paint a rosy picture of the health of family farms, but it’s more complicated than that. Despite family farms holding the majority, non-family farms (or farms owned by corporations run by investors, while employees operate the farm itself) contributed to over 30 percent of high-value crop production. They also accounted for 16 percent of hog production and 17 percent of beef production8. This is an enormous amount considering non-family farms only make up four percent of farms in this country. Additionally, The USDA estimates that over the next two decades, 70% of farmland will change in ownership. Much of this is driven by younger generations lacking the skills, desire, or financial means to continue operating their family farms9.
Family farms play an integral part in their communities and are a vital component of the landscape of our state. Skagit, Grant, Whitman and other rural counties wouldn’t thrive without family farms. Families genuinely care about the products they are producing and the health of the land and water. As Crystal King, who raises crops and cattle with her family near Columbus, Nebraska, so succinctly puts it: “ It’s imperative for consumers to know we care about the land - we live here, too. We care about our water - we drink it, too. We care about our animals - what they eat and the care they receive - because we eat the same meat, too.4”
Large corporate farms aren’t tied to the land like family farms. They haven’t seen it thrive and change over the seasons. They don’t look out over their herd of cattle every day, or watch the plants as they burst from the ground. The kind of devotion family farms cultivate cannot be bought. It grows from being on the land, sometimes for generations. Family farms not only enhance the economies of their communities, but they translate to more cost-effective options for the consumers at the grocery store2. When family farms thrive, we all thrive.
Willie Nelson put it best: “The fight to save family farms isn't just about farmers. It’s about making sure that there is a safe and healthy food supply for all of us. It’s about jobs, from Main Street to Wall Street. It’s about a better America.7” And, a better Washington.