When Big Ag Claims to Be Helping ‘Small Farms’

When big corporations, especially groups and trade associations of big corporations, appear to be lobbying for small businesses, I always get deeply suspicious. I see no particular reason why these firms should support smaller rivals in the industry, even if they are small and unlikely to ever threaten the larger company’s market share, because this is a capitalist world, and encouraging the competition to do well isn’t necessarily a wise business strategy. Thus, my eyebrows tend to go up when I see something ostensibly touted as a great thing for small business when it’s backed by big business, and I worry when I see people picking up the idea and running with it.

Especially the small businesses that are allegedly being spoken for, because it’s entirely possible that this isn’t in their best interests despite what lobbying has told them. But it might be very much within the interests of big business, which now has a lovely veneer of claiming to be in it for the sake of the little guy.

We live in a world where a growing number of people are resenting and distrusting corporations, as well as they should be. Those same people are thus turning to small businesses and trying to support them, while counting on them for information about the industries they’re in. When it comes to things like finding out how to vote, supporting measures in Congress, and other activities, a growing number of people are paying attention to the small business owners they interact with, giving them more weight and serious consideration.

When people see something touted as being good for small business, they’re already predisposed to like it, and that increases when small businesses chime in to support it. Consequently, big capitalist firms have opportunities to push through all sorts of nasty things on the coattails of small business; take, for example, the National Chamber of Commerce, which promotes corporations while pretending to be on the side of small business owners.

And you see the same thing in agriculture, where industrial agriculture is working hard to squash small family farms, traditional farming techniques, beyond organic, and more, all while appropriating the symbolism and mythology of farming heritage because it knows that’s what people want. People want ‘organic’ produce, so industrial agriculture is providing it. People like the thought of happy animals living in healthy conditions, so big ag provides cheerful pictures on its labels and advertises as ‘free range.’ People like the thought of ethical food, so big ag obliges, as long as you don’t look too close below the service.

Meanwhile, agricultural firms are also working hard in Congress and elsewhere to push through rules favouring their practices. That includes dilution of food labels so it’s easier to get things labeled as, for example, ‘organic,’ along with relaxation of labour laws, so they can keep using children, exploited undocumented immigrants, and other marginalised labourers in the fields because they cost less. They’re pushing for fewer safety protections, less oversight, and a landscape potentially rife with abuses.

And they’re well aware that if the situation is described this way, any right-thinking civilian would, of course, side against it. People concerned about their food don’t want to see their food become more unsafe, and those worried about labour rights don’t like to think of labour being abused in the production of the food they eat. So big agriculture cleverly wraps these initiatives in a small farm package. They threaten the demise of the small farm if new safety measures pass. They confuse the language around initiatives that benefit them to make it sound like small farms will benefit too. They create a situation where it seems entirely natural and appropriate to support something that actually does something rather terrible.

Something that could certainly create a profound advantage for big ag, not that it needs it, over small farms. And yet somehow, this is being presented as a boon for small farms, and frustratingly, some small farmers are picking it up and lobbying along with big ag. This is partly the result of conservatism, which can be a dominant social force in many farming-heavy areas of the nation, where people generally support capitalism and the functions of major corporations because that fits in with their economic and political worldview. But it’s also partly due to crafty manipulation, causing farmers to push against their own best interests because they’ve been misled; and farmers are not, by any means, unable to evaluate information carefully and make considered choices, since that’s a big part of what their job is all about.

When you see something pushed as being good for small farms, take a closer look at it. See where it originated, who is supporting it, and why. Do you see the hands of a major corporation somewhere on the strings? Possibly far, far back? You might want to reconsider whether it’s something you really want to support, and you might want to read it over very carefully to see if it really does what you think it does. Will an initiative make it easier for farms to sell cottage foods at small markets, for example, or will it actually reduce inspections at big ag’s dairies and processing facilities, increasing the risk of serious foodborne illness?

Big ag counts on lack of knowledge about farming and lack of willingness to read documentation to push through harmful rules and legislature. It’s time to push right back.