Corporate farming is a term used to describe companies that own or influence farms and agricultural practices on a large scale. This includes not only corporate ownership of farms and selling of agricultural products, but also the roles of these companies in influencing agricultural education, research, and public policy through funding initiatives and lobbying efforts.
The definition and effects of corporate farming on agriculture are widely debated, though most sources that describe large businesses in agriculture as "corporate farms" portray their role in a negative light.
Definitions and Usage
The varied and fluid meanings of "corporate farming" have resulted in conflicting definitions of the term, with implications in particular for legal definitions.
Most legal definitions of corporate farming in the United States pertain to tax laws, anti-corporate farming laws, and census data collection. These definitions mostly reference farm income, indicating farms over a certain threshold as corporate farms, as well as ownership of the farm, specifically targeting farms that do not pass ownership through family lines.
In public discourse, the term "corporate farming" lacks a firmly established definition and is variously applied. However, several features of the term's usage frequently arise:
- It is largely used as a pejorative with strong negative connotations.
- It most commonly refers to corporations that are large-scale farms, market agricultural technologies (in particular pesticides, fertilizers, and GMO's), have significant economic and political influence, or some combination of the three.
- It is usually used in opposition to family farms and new agricultural movements, such as sustainable agriculture and the local food movement.
"Family farm" and "corporate farm" are often defined as mutually exclusive terms, with the two having fundamentally opposing goals. This mostly stems from the widespread assumption that family farms are small farms while corporate farms are large scale operations. While it is true that the majority of small farms are family owned, many large farms are also family businesses, including some of the largest farms in the US.
Additionally, there are large economic and legal incentives for family farmers to incorporate their businesses. This has resulted in the majority of family farms in the US being also legally defined as corporations, further muddying the distinction between family and corporate farms.
Farming contracts are agreements between a farmer and a buyer that stipulates what the farmer will grow and how much they will grow usually in return for guaranteed purchase of the product or financial support in purchase of inputs (e.g. feed for livestock growers). In most instances of contract farming, the farm is family owned while the buyer is a larger corporation. This makes it difficult to distinguish the contract farmers from "corporate farms," because they are family farms but with significant corporate influence. This subtle distinction left a loop-hole in many state laws that prohibited corporate farming, effectively allowing corporations to farm in these states as long as they contracted with local farm owners.
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Many people also choose to include non-farming entities in their definitions of corporate farming. Beyond just the farm contractors mentioned above, these types of companies commonly considered part of the term include Cargill, Monsanto, and DuPont Pioneer among others. These corporations do not have production farms, meaning they do not produce a significant amount of farm products. However, their role in producing and selling agricultural supplies and their purchase and processing of farm products often leads to them being grouped with corporate farms. While this is technically incorrect, many find including these companies in the term "corporate farming" useful in order to describe the influence of large companies over agriculture.
Anti-Corporate Farming Laws
To date, nine US states have enacted laws that restrict or prohibit corporate farming. The first of these laws were enacted in the 1930s by Kansas and North Dakota respectively. In the 1970s, similar laws were passed in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota and Wisconsin. In 1982, after failure to pass an anti-corporate farming law, the citizens of Nebraska enacted by initiative a similar amendment into their state constitution. The citizens of South Dakota similarly amended their state constitution in 1998.
All nine laws have similar content. They all restrict corporate ability to own and operate on farmland. They all outline exceptions for specific types of corporations. However, they vary significantly in how they define a corporate farm, and in the specific restrictions. Definitions of a farm can include any and all farm operations, or be dependent on the source of income, as in Iowa, where 60 percent of income must come from farm products. Additionally, these laws can target a corporation's use of the land, meaning that companies can own but not farm the land, or they may outright prohibit corporations from buying and owning farmland. The precise wording of these laws has significant impact on how corporations can participate in agriculture in these states with the ultimate goal of protecting and empowering the family farm.
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