Chances are that most consumers today would define your enterprise as a “factory farm.” What’s more disturbing, they wouldn’t think twice about it. The term has become as main stream as “Kleenex” in referring to all facial tissue or “Jello” for gelatin.

In fact, 64 percent of Americans are familiar with the term “factory farming” today, according to a National Beef Board study, compared with 49 percent in 2008. 

While 48 percent of consumers polled identify factory farming with beef production, the rate jumps to 75 percent for chicken production. Surprisingly, 34 percent associated pigs/hogs with factory farming. I say surprising because, let’s face it, that seems low.

On the surface, labels are convenient. They organize items, people, even farms, into clean, tidy categories, or so the theory goes. The problem with labels is they are not always equally clean and tidy.

People understand what a teacher or an airplane pilot does, because they cross paths with those professions. But today, the public no longer crosses paths with folks in agriculture. Consequently, they have little idea beyond story books what a farmer does, much less what constitutes a “family farm” or a factory farm.

Today, both labels are tossed about freely, yet with conviction. They are used to pass judgment about what is wholesome, fair and right. But, what constitutes a family farm or a factory farm? The definitions literally depend on the individual — even among those of us in agriculture. 

Size was the overwhelming criteria (82 percent) to receive factory-farm determination in the beef survey, but there was no delineation of what size.

The beef survey also gave consumers two descriptions: one where the animal spends any part of its life confined (39 percent chose this); or one where the animal spends all of its life confined (45 percent chose this). “Consumers overwhelmingly associate factory farming with big agriculture and large-scale farming. They describe factory farming as being industrialized, using machinery and technology, owned by big corporations, and producing large numbers of animals,” according to the survey report.

Hmm — how many farms of any size or configuration do not use some amount of machinery or technology? 

As for a family farm, people like to point to the farmer’s market vendor as a family farm. In reality, that may or may not be the case, depending on the market and where the vendor gets his or her products. Just as often, any farm producing organic or natural goods is granted the same consideration, even though a growing number of those are large corporations.

That raises another reasonable point. For tax purposes and numerous other reasons, farms, regardless of size, are organized as corporations, limited liability partnerships or other business structures. Are they family farms?

Is a farmer who raises hogs on contract for another producer on a farmstead that’s been in his family for four generations a family farmer? Is a second-generation farm now owned by four siblings, but who rent the land out, still a family farm? What about the 10,000-sow farm owned by two adult brothers, with a stable of non-family employees?

Size should not be part of the family-farm equation, and agriculture needs to support each other more broadly and speak more uniformly. There have always been big farms and small farms; one is not right and the other wrong. Both can survive and both can fail. As with any business, the key is to find a niche and fill it; just don’t drag others down in the effort. If global food production is to more than double by 2050, there’s enough work to be done by everyone. 

By the way, anyone who’s trying to support himself/herself, a family or pay bills with the farm is running a business; otherwise it’s a hobby. That word “business” is another one that cuts against the grain of many people’s bucolic idea of farming. My father, who had 160 acres, a dairy herd, a swine herd and an immaculate set of farm-account books, would certainly bristle at such nonsense.

This summer, USDA’s Economic Research Service released “Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms: Family Farm Report, 2010 Edition.” Reflecting 2007 numbers, the report cites 98 percent of U.S. farms as family operations, and even the largest farms are predominantly family run. Most consumers would be shocked to hear that, but it’s a message they desperately need to receive.

Creating a clear, accurate definition is a messy business, so it’s much easier to make it up as you go along, according to your own ideals. Of course, that does nothing to promote communication and understanding — two things that agriculture and food production could use more of these days.