Why Farmers are Like Pirates

Written by Jacob Grace on Wednesday, September 30, 2015 at 4:05 PM

Think back to when you first heard about Somali pirates. Try to remember how you pictured them. If you’re like me, your first thought was probably, “Pirates? You mean they’re still around?” Then you saw photos: motorboats of sullen-faced men holding machine guns. There were no peg legs or parrots, no hooks or tricorn hats, no cannons or cutlasses. “Oh,” you may have thought to yourself, “not real pirates.” 

Like modern pirates, modern farmers can be hard for us to recognize. Despite what we know about farming and agriculture, we have such a strong cultural image of what a “real” farmer is that we don’t always recognize farmers when we encounter them. Modern-day farmers are becoming less and less like the farmers in our cultural consciousness, and it’s starting to cause some problems. 

For example, the US government expects to spend almost $7 billion dollars next year in agricultural subsidies, and sometimes that money ends up going to people who don’t meet the loosest definition of “farmer.” While the farm subsidy program was meant to provide security to working farmers during hard times, subsidy money has recently been collected by people like Microsoft founder Paul Allen and basketball star Scottie Pippen.  These men were able to qualify for subsidy payments by meeting the USDA’s requirements for being “actively engaged in farming,” which include simply owning land that is used for farming. While it’s unlikely they fit your idea of “real” farmers, Allen and Pippen technically meet the legal definition. The USDA is currently attempting to close the loopholes on their “actively engaged” requirements, a reminder of just how difficult (and important) it is to define who the real farmers are. 

Unsatisfied with the USDA’s definition of “farmer,” I tried coming up with my own definition…and quickly realized just how hard it can be. Here is my list of what I considered the defining traits of a “real” farmer, followed by my attempts to verify these assumptions.

1. Real farmers must consider farming their primary job, with the majority of their time, energy, and money invested in farming.

Fact: Less than half of US farm owners consider farming their main occupation. 

2. Real farmers must be involved in management decisions on the farm, not just provide labor.

Fact: At least a third of US farm workers are hired labor. 

3. Being a farmer is a lifestyle, not just a temporary occupation.

Fact: Over three quarters of US farmers have farmed for at least ten years. 

4. I’ll admit, when I picture a farmer in my head, he’s usually male.

Fact: According to the USDA, women are the primary operators on 14% of US farms.  The Women, Food & Agriculture Network claims that almost half of US farmland is owned by women.

5. Real farmers are able to support themselves solely through farming. 

Fact: Less than a quarter of U.S. farms produce more than $50,000 in gross revenue a year.

As you can see, only one of my defining traits (#3) was strongly supported by the current data on US farmers. And this list doesn’t even attempt to define farmers globally. The real farmers in our world, like the real pirates, sometimes look very different than we expect them to. Many Americans, if asked to define “farmer,” might even reply, “Farmers? You mean they’re still around?” 

It could be that farmers are just evolving with the times. Or it could be that modern farmers have evolved so much that they’re no longer true farmers, but have become businessmen, laborers, gardeners, and hobby farmers. What do you think? Now it’s your turn to join the conversation. If you’ve made it this far in the blog post, please take two minutes and leave a comment with your best definition of “farmer.” I’m eager to hear your feedback! 

Jacob Grace is a first year Agroecology student.  He grew up on a farm in northwest Missouri and attended Truman State University. His research examines the effect of managed grazing on brush suppression

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