Monday, October 26, 2009

Catalysts of Misunderstanding by Profood?

Part 1 of a series.

Recent conversations on twitter among #profood people have brought to attention several issues which seem to escape their understanding or ability to understand from a production ag perspective. I use the term production ag very generally. In my opinion someone is production ag if they derive more than 75% of their annual income from ag production and includes all management styles: conventional, traditional, organic, natural, grass fed, etc. Posts over the past week seem to be trying to portray that #agchat people are “against change,” “anti-environment,” “big ag,” “corporate ag” and a multitude of other labels inferring a lack interest in food safety and sustainability. I hope to take a shot at explaining what I believe are some of the issues that are being misunderstood by the #profood community and why when some issues are brought up, it leads to those in the #agchat community becoming cautious and protective.

1. Understanding the importance of economic sustainability

First, many of the farms and ranches in the United States are multi-generational, some currently in their 5th, 6th, and 7th generation of ownership and management. It is critical that the current generation be able to maintain the productive viability and economic viability in order to keep these farms and ranches in a condition to pass on to future generations. Farms and ranches are continuously adopting new management techniques and technology to maintain the health and longevity of their land. Also, the vast majority of family farmers and ranchers derive their entire income from their operations. However, over the past 30 years the trend is showing more that at least one spouse is working “off farm” in order to “keep the farm.”

Second, few farmers and ranchers have retirement plans, IRA’s or 401K’s, let alone extensive health insurance plans. Their land, cattle, equipment and other assets are what they depend on to carry them through to the end. Any net income at the end of an operating year is typically used to pay off operation loans and whatever is left is reinvested in the operation through repairs, improvements and upgrades. This is predominately why those of us in production ag are so concerned over Estate Taxes. Considering land and asset values we are “rich,” but when it comes to dollars in the bank, most of us are just getting by. Being presented with the scenario of having to split off portions of our farms and ranches in order to pay inheritance taxes makes us sick to our stomachs. Our farms and ranches are living entities and part of us, and we want to be able to keep the body whole for future generations.

It should be understandable that anytime new legislation, regulation or change is brought up that potentially threatens the economic sustainability of a farm or ranch is sparks emotional response. Our farms and ranches, crops and livestock are our lives, often times seeing more personal attention than our actual families. Therefore, comments and accusations pertaining to our livelihood are taken personally.

The bottom line is that we all manage our farms and ranches to promote sustainability of production and economic viability. These two concepts are inseparable. We are continuing to learn and adapt our management practices to positively influence the health of the land as well as provide for our families and future generations. In an ideal world we would like to guarantee that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will still be able to make a living doing what we do, on the same land.

Part 2: Understanding “skepticism” on transitioning food supply to entirely organic and/or locally produced

(Coming as soon as I have another break in the ranch work.)


  1. Looking forward to the reading the rest of this series. In my opinion, the high point of this post is that all business is personal and that economic viability is the foundation of any sustainable deffinition.

  2. Thank you for your post Nate, they are always appreciated. You pointed out the primary reason why I started the series with this post. I think that in some cases, people who do not depend on farming or ranching for their primary source of income and livelihood have difficulty understanding our perspective.

  3. Jeff, this is a REALLY important point that's NOT being discussed. Thanks for helping me make the connection between the estate tax issue and ag's ability to continue forward. Taxes are a HUGE issue for all small business owners, especially those with a large capital base.

    Hmmm ...

    Taxes are the type of issue that tends to flush people out in the open from a policy standpoint. I REALLY look forward to following the progress of this thread!


  4. I didn't realize how estate taxes would affect farmers. While I think I support taxes for non farmers, what you describe is not ok. Looking forwrd to hearing the rest of your argument.

  5. Profood - by definition includes economic viability. Perhaps you can point me to where there is any official profood position on the estate tax? I haven't seen it.

    Individually - we might have issues with it, some may very well agree with you Jeff.

    I do look forward to seeing the next installment. But I hope if you are mentioning profood you take the time to be accurate about what we support.

    My personal and the most common accepted definition of sustainability is this:

    "meet the needs of the present generation, without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same...."

    that means for everyone on the planet, not one generation of one family...

    I think there is a real need for a discussion of what sustainabilty means in light of the end of cheap oil, but I can't get anyone to address that...Maybe because people like bastasia keep flogging idea that we're a bunch of vegan socialists over on profood.

    (The sooner that crap stops the better.)

    Jeff, good to hear where you are coming from on this. I may have a more detailed response when I get some traction with the chores over here.

    Take care!

  6. I should clarify - I am all for supporting family farms in remaining viable and transitioning. I don't think people like you and your family should be hung out to dry on this stuff. Any mandates, have to have means and support to help make transition that are being required.

    Personally I want to see subsidies for net positive practices and and end to those subsidies that are not environmentally a net positive. We already subsidize the unsustainable. That's irrational for all of us.

    I do get what you are saying here though. I do know that the families still standing - have been through hell to be able to still do this work.

  7. Also - I am always passing on information about supporting farming families through succession issues. I do understand how because some of these regs are written without finesse..and for instance developing bills without a separate category for multi-generational farms - They can certainly be threatening and piss ALL family farmers off.

    Profood, is not the enemy here though.

  8. Good definition of sustainability here:


    Just a THANK YOU Jeff for always trying to bring depth to the discussion. You are a model on this, and I REALLY appreciate that about you.

  10. "Our farms and ranches are living entities and part of us, and we want to be able to keep the body whole for future generations."! What a quote, Jeff! Great points here, keep up the good work. I look forward to future installments.


About Me

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Jeff Fowle is a fourth generation family farmer and rancher from Etna, California. He and his wife Erin and son Kyle raise registered Angus cattle, Percheron draft horses, warmbloods, alfalfa and alfalfa-grass hay. They also start and train horses for riding, jumping, and driving. Their family run ranch has incorporated many environmentally beneficial and water efficient technologies and management strategies. Jeff attended college at Colorado State University for two years and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for four and earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Science. Following college, he worked in Washington State for a year as a herdsman for BB Cattle Company and then returned to Etna, California in 1995 to own and operate KK Bar Ranch and Siskiyou Percherons. The latter was started by his grandfather, Clarence Dudley, who devoted much of his time to the Percheron Horse Association of America, specifically to developing their youth education program.