Is it always the Big Guys who win? Not if you ask Rudy Ruettiger, who dreamed of playing on Notre Dame’s prestigious football team as a defensive end. The odds were stacked against him. Not only did his slight stature (just 5’ 6”, 165 lbs) put him at a severe disadvantage, but his learning disability made getting the grades required for admission a huge challenge. Nonetheless, Rudy kept his eye on the prize. He worked hard, transferred to the university and earned a walk-on spot on the practice squad.
Rudy’s big moment to play in a game came after a long wait: during the final moments of the last game of his senior year. In the end, he made college football history by sacking the Georgia Tech quarterback and becoming one of only two Fighting Irish players in history to be carried off the field by his teammates. Rudy’s inspirational story of perseverance became the subject of a blockbuster movie and he even founded a now defunct sports drink line.
Nevertheless, his story illustrates an important point: Goliath, you’d better watch out.
Rooting for David
All of this large-versus-small talk comes on the heels of the Farm Bill negotiations. As of the writing of this piece, the Senate passed its version of the Bill and the House is working on a draft. Some versions (including that supported by the Senate) have drawn criticisms that large farms will benefit over small.
As a lover and supporter of small businesses, I take issue with unfair advantages for already powerful and influentials corporations. In this case, Big Ag.
Some 91% of all U.S. farms are considered “small” (i.e., gross cash farm income [GCFI] of less than $250,000). Of these, 60% are “very small” farms (i.e., with a GCFI of less than $10,000), the owners of which mainly count on non-farm income to get by. But the other 31% are small commercial farms; they are 800,000 strong and play an important role in American agriculture (1).
Small commercial farms are not small potatoes. They cultivate $65+ billion worth of goods we rely on in our day-to-day lives. These smaller guys often work with commodities that don’t require full-time labor (remember, their main revenue sources are often earned away from the farm). Such goods can include poultry and beef as well as hay and grains. I suspect these small farms have an entirely different mentality than factory farms, especially with regard to the humane treatment of animals—something worth supporting and encouraging.
On the other hand, big farms love higher-value items (like fruits, vegetables and dairy). While not the case for all, supporters of genetically engineered crops are no doubt included in this count.
Small operations cultivate something else. They bring heart and drive to the industry, not to mention innovation, which is especially apparent in the natural and organic sectors. These contributions of small businesses must be preserved and nurtured for the important diversity they bring to our business landscape.
In the agricultural world, both large and small farms have important jobs in our economy and neither community should dry up due to imbalanced financial support. But, I feel it’s especially worth investing in small players, and hope those with the power to grant monetary resources acknowledge the value of small farmers by sowing a path of support so that we can all reap the rewards, season after season.
USDA, “Small Farms in the United States” Feb. 2010.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, August 2012