It is easy to assume that more and more farms are now corporate farms or backed by corporate investors, given the complex machinery, large pieces of land, and different tax rules for farms. Recent news about Bill Gates’ ownership of farmland have buttressed the pervasive notion that corporate is king in the farming world.
Farmers and ranchers in Washington state and elsewhere would disagree. While farmers and ranchers do own large pieces of equipment and acres of land, farming is still a family enterprise in most cases.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports 80% of Washington state’s farms and ranches are owned and operated by families. A “family farm” is defined as a farm organized as a “sole proprietorship, partnership, or family corporation” and excludes “nonfamily corporations, cooperatives, or farms with hired managers” (that last one is how Bill Gates’s farmland is managed). That means, in our state, about 28,800 of our 36,000 farms and ranches are owned and operated by families.
Despite recent talking points alluding to farmers and ranchers working “less than half time,” when farmers and ranchers say there is no such thing as a day off or are upset by regulations that impede their ability to care for their crops and livestock, it is because every decision made by some distant lawmaker is far removed from the lived reality of the farm or ranch. Virtually all decisions made by Washington state’s farmers and ranchers affect a family sitting around a dinner table trying to determine what to do next. Too often, regulations and new laws put those families in harm’s way without regard for the consequences.
Still, families operating farms and ranches in Washington state must make decisions regarding huge sums of money that will affect their lives for many years to come. In Eastern Washington in particular, where a single field can be up to 640 acres in size, farmers need big tractors to be as efficient and effective as possible. As a major investment, a new tractor can cost upwards of $250,000.
These risky decisions are not made in a bank office or a corporate board room; they are typically made around a kitchen table with spreadsheets of the farm or ranch finances laid out in front of the family. That is why familial ties to the land and the people are so strong in the agricultural community.
It is not just because decisions are made by family members that the agricultural community is unique in its structure, however. Along with relying upon each other for guidance in making difficult decisions, farmers and ranchers must depend on each other when the unpredictable occurs.
Farmers and ranchers roll the proverbial dice with weather, seeds, breeding livestock, physical well-being, and myriad other factors outside of their control daily. The best they can do is respond to what occurs and ask for help when they need it.
Asking for help might be the biggest challenge a farmer or rancher faces in their personal or professional life. As a result, helping out is often an inside job — a task left to family members to fill the void left should the primary farmer or rancher fall ill, be injured, or be away from the farm or ranch.
This is farm life at its core. Family members re-order their lives as needed to help one another. Perhaps that means longer days, earlier mornings, or just more to do in a day, but it is also the nature of farming that some tasks must be done by a specific time to ensure the health of livestock or the viability of a crop. If the farmer or rancher is unavailable to do the task, then the next available person must do it without delay, to ensure the continued success of the farm or ranch.