Confident Businessman Giant Towering Over City Skyline

Confident smiling tall businessman giant standing with his hands on his hips, towering over the city skyline

If a cartoonist decided to depict big business, this is how it might go.

A giant cat with a cigar and top hat would rise from behind a city skyline, bellowing “I shall now sell off the Rochester office” as mom-and-pop shop owners run screaming for their lives.

Big companies have received, and often earned, a reputation for ruthlessness. But as we’ve been reminded this month, they can also do a lot of good.

Two successful COVID-19 vaccines have just been announced, and the makers aren’t exactly small fry.

Pfizer has annual revenue of almost $52 billion, considerably more than the state budget of Pennsylvania. Moderna is a smaller company with narrower goals, though its annual revenue is still a cool $60 million.

Advanced, well-capitalized companies like these are the ones best positioned to tackle the most urgent challenge of our day.

Small businesses are important, of course. They provide specialized services and niche products and face high expectations for customer service. And a small business can’t very well act like the little town where it has its only location means nothing to the company.

Given the harrowing of national-chain newsrooms in recent years, I’m certainly glad to work for a relatively small, locally owned newspaper company.

Still, the question of scale is particularly fraught in agriculture.

For historical and practical reasons, family ownership is the standard business model. But the biggest farms employ large workforces and can generally produce food at a lower cost than a 50-acre homestead can.

At the same time, the farm supply chain — seed production, equipment manufacturing and meatpacking — has come to be dominated by a handful of major players.

Consolidation is entirely normal, though small businesses don’t always enjoy competing against much larger, better known firms.

And when large companies act badly, they can do so on a grand scale.

Pilgrim’s Pride entered a plea agreement last month and will pay $110 million as part of a federal probe into anticompetitive practices in the chicken industry. The penalty is almost twice Moderna’s revenue for a year and a lot more than the average farmer makes.

Northeastern farms have been scaling up, of course. New York had six farms with 1,000 dairy cows in 1992. Now it has 140.

But in this part of the country, big can only go so far. Broken up by the Appalachians and heavily populated, this land isn’t set up for big farming in the same way as Nebraska or Idaho is.

Through government policy and Extension programming, we should create conditions that allow the persistence of small farms — the kind that can be managed by a single family with minimal outside labor. Might as well maximize the number of people who own the means of production.

It’s unfair to demand through policy that farms stay small, which could trap farms with uncompetitive cost structures and prevent modernization.

But if consumers want to buy what small farms are selling, by all means let them. Plenty of farms are taking advantage of the strengths of small business — niche markets, personal service, community roots.

Small farms are not going to be the complete answer for how the United States feeds itself — not with today’s vast national and global customer base, not with today’s efficient technology, not with the Great Plains providing us a meaty slab of arable land.

Small farms and small businesses support a lot of families and provide economic dynamism.

But let’s not reflexively resent the success of big businesses either. In large part, the way out of the pandemic runs through them.

Lancaster Farming

Newsletter

On Sept. 21, the USDA instituted a second round of funding, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program 2, to ease at least some of the pain and fiscal stress the crisis has caused farmers, ranchers and growers. Read more