A new year’s wish: Common ground


In a speech during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln said: “We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name…”

In reading Lincoln’s quote recently, I was struck by a similarity of his comments to our declarations for “family farming.” In using the same word, we do not all mean the same thing.

Is a traditional family farm a family of four living on a farm and supplying all the labor, capital and management, or is it a larger farm owned by a family corporation with four families supplying all of the capital and management? Is it both?

There is a great dissimilarity, however, in using the rest of the quote to refer to agriculture. Our differing definitions are not necessarily incompatible – there is common ground. It lies in the idea that all-sized families involved in agriculture farm for reasons that go beyond the bottom line. Large or small, they farm because there is nothing to compare to the freedom of self-employed independence, the daily witness of the changing seasons and of the life cycle of animals and plants.

For all the economists who assert you must view a farm as a business, it still remains a “way of life.” And that is the common ground that remains whether you’re milking 50 cows or 500.

There is also great opportunity to build more common ground with larger segments of society, but only if agriculture acknowledges the valid concerns of the general public: pollution concerns, natural resource concerns, food safety concerns.

Society is trying to renegotiate its contract with agriculture and that broadens farmers’ responsibilities, says Dixon Hubbard, former manager of agricultural competitiveness with the USDA Extension Service. “There is a call to protect the land as a natural resource and there is concern for food safety, too.”

Family farms must recognize those greater responsibilities and respond. Attention to agriculture’s impact and scrutiny of expanding family farms will not go away. The world is changing; all farmers are facing greater management complexity and risk.

There are good small-sized family farms and there are good large-sized family farms. One size is not inherently better than the other.

There is common ground between the two. I guess we’re just not sure how to get there.


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