08/30/2012 08:25 am ET Updated Oct 30, 2012

Don't Romanticize Small Farmers -- Some Are Jerks

Small farms are, it seems, the new black. Conscientious eaters want to turn the clock back to the post-WWII kind of farm that had limited acreage and raised a variety of plants and animals. The kind with tractors, and silos, and picturesque red barns.

Mark Bittman, for example, in a New York Times piece called, "Celebrate the Farmer!" wrote: "In short, we need more real farmers, not businessmen riding on half-million-dollar combines. ... go visit a one- or two-acre intensive garden ... Then imagine thousands of 10-, 20-, and 100-acre farms planted similarly; the vegetables sold regionally, the pigs fed from scraps, the compost fertilizing the soil, the cattle at pasture, the milk making cheese."

Just like in 1948. When it took almost half the nation's population to grow our food. While the excesses of Big Agriculture have earned our enmity, we should remember that we've gone from half the population feeding 150 million people to 1-2% of the population feeding over 300 million -- using less land.

Food has become cheap, and farming has become efficient, but it is those excesses we're focused on. And with good reason: the destruction of topsoil, the reliance on monocrops, and the web of subsidies for corn and soy are indefensible. It's a baby-and-bathwater situation, and we need to be looking for ways to preserve the pluses and mitigate the minuses.

Painting big farmers as bad guys and small farmers as good guys doesn't help. Mr. Bittman equates "small" with "real," and claims that those real, small farmers, unlike those nasty businessmen, "take pride in every tomato."

We can argue about the merits of small and large farms. We can talk about the benefits and drawbacks of mechanization. We can try to find the balance between monocrops and efficiency. But let's get one thing straight: small farmers are as likely as anyone to be jerks.

I am a small farmer. My husband and I grow about 100,000 oysters each year in the waters off Cape Cod. We've been doing it for three years, which is about seven seconds in farm years. But it's enough to know that the world of small agriculture has, in addition to hard-working, upstanding, growers of fine fresh foods, its share of farmers who are unscrupulous, unpleasant, and unskilled.

Go into any community like ours, and any small farmer there will be able to tell you who does it right and who doesn't. He can tell you who files bogus insurance claims or underpays workers. He can tell you which roadside "farm stands" sell produce from the local supermarket, marked up. He can tell you who's intent on fleecing the government and who isn't really organic. He can tell you who kicks his dog. He probably won't, but he certainly can.

I'm a fan of Mark Bittman. I read his column, I buy his books, and I'm glad he's keeping the discussion about improving our food system alive. But improving our food system is hard, and romanticizing the small farmer just muddies the water.