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Let’s Take a Moment to Consider Our Farmers

Christopher Barden

Christopher Barden. Credit Maureen Ladley

Everyone eats. All of us go to the store and purchase groceries. And yet, how many of us understand the food production system that we rely upon? Most of the people I know have very strong opinions about food, not only about the types of food they prefer but also how that food is made and gets to them.

Many folks have a romantic notion of a family farmer getting up when the rooster crows at the crack of dawn, and starting the day with a huge breakfast — made with food from the property — before heading out to ride about on a tractor. I know family farmers who live their lives close to this idyllic notion.

On the other side of the fence are those whose scenario of the family farm is one corrupted by mega-conglomerates out to reap huge profits from unwitting consumers. I know many corporate farmers. The difference between them and their idealized colleagues is really very little.

A family farmer’s daily juggle

The family farmers I’m acquainted with indeed rise very early, often well before sun-up. But, there the romantic notion fades. These hard workers get out of the house first thing to check on the welfare of their crops and/or their animals. They often put in a few hours of farm work before breakfast, a meal followed by office work — responding to emails, purchasing supplies, checking up on sales, evaluating market prognostications and looking at weather forecasts. Then it’s back to more farming tasks, and maybe a drive into town to pick up the supplies they ordered. These farmers’ days are filled with a high degree of physical labor along with tactical decision-making, all the while keeping in mind their strategic goals — usually increasing yields and decreasing costs.

A California dairy farmer explained to me that he was currently wrestling with signing a contract locking in a specified amount for his milk for five years to come. He told me that the offer was a good one, but, he was balancing it with two other long-term contracts to purchase fertilizers and petroleum. To make these decisions he was studying the tensions in the Middle East and the effect that situation might have on future petroleum prices.

Many farmers tell me they long for days in the tractor or combine to just think. Family farmers spend their waking hours solving the inevitable crises of the moment: capturing an enterprising pig that got through fencing and chomped on a neighbors’ crops, or something more dire, like a storm on the horizon at the very moment wheat is being cut. 

Growing product is just the start

In the late afternoon or evening there is usually more time spent in the office, to review the latest batch of emails, return phone calls, place orders and sell product. Some farmers, generally commodities farmers producing grain or animals in abundance, have prices locked in ahead of harvest. However, vegetable producers and those with niche markets (like high-end organic meats, or produce sold directly to restaurants) often spend a great amount of time dealing directly with their buyers. Many do not use wholesalers or even co-ops. This means creating personal relationships and maintaining them, and may require investing time in social media and going to farmers markets.

I asked a local berry producer in California to describe her average market day to me. She said she was up at 3 a.m. and out with her crew picking berries under lights. Then it was back to the warehouse where the fruit was cleaned before being packaged. She had to load up her van, drive two hours to the market, set up her booth, and be ready to sell her berries before 8:30 a.m. “Oh yeah,” she added, “and I have to make sure that I have a few hundred dollars in change because everyone arrives with $20 bills.”

Growing locally requires thinking globally

The large-scale corporate farm owner usually has hired hands to take care of daily tasks. Often the CEOs of their companies, these farmers are more tightly tied to their desks, Internet and email. Success or failure rests upon their business savvy and understanding of the global agricultural marketplace. During a meeting with one not long ago, I noticed he spent the entire time we talked going through résumés for a position that he desperately needed to fill. He didn’t consider anyone with less than six years at their previous job and looked for someone with a diverse mix of skills that included physical work and decision-making acumen. “Folks who work for me,” he said, “must have the ability to make a decision and see it through.”

Americans tend to forget that the family farmer and the large-scale corporate farmer are business people. Too often the belief is that farmers are just cogs in the machine, played like marionettes by seed, fertilizer and petroleum companies, and everyone else we refer to as “The Man.”

Farmers cannot afford to make bad decisions that jeopardize their livelihood and the success of their farms. I have never met an American farmer who did not want his farm to be sustainable. I have never met an American farmer who was not concerned about pollution, water quality and soil management. I have never met an American farmer who was not concerned about the welfare of their animals and who did not care for them deeply. Certainly there are businesses that squeeze the most out of an animal that they can, but, in my estimation they are few and far between. Most farmers I know get sentimental, and even cry, when their animals head to market.

So the next time you grab an ear of corn at the supermarket, eye the piles of freshly picked eggplants, cherries or artichokes at a farm stand or find yourself staring at the possibilities in the butcher’s case, take a moment to consider what went into getting these products to you. Back-breaking physical labor, intense business acumen and world politics are all juggled — with a prayer that the vagaries of Mother Nature won’t devastate the finely honed calculations — to bring each harvest to fruition, each animal to maturity. Whether they have corporate or family run operations, farmers put their lives and businesses on the line every day to get the best food they can on your table. Not one bite should be taken for granted.

Photo: Christopher Barden.  Credit: Maureen Ladley

This week’s Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Christopher Barden is the vice president ofWorldwide Farmers Exchange, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit  independent of government funding. Readers who would like to donate, be a host or get their company involved in the exchange program can email Barden or the WFE.

  • To the USDA 7·17·12

    This is a generalized comment concerning all food production in California.

    USA Government, TURN THE WATER BACK ON!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Stop ripping off Americans of our natural rescources. California has the ablitliy to very nearly if not completely feed ALL of America in all food areas, stop selling our best to foreign countries and stop bankrupting American farmers and ranchers. We are blessed enough to be sefl sufficient in the food area for all of our country , USDA kick it in high gear and get the governments foot off the hose of this countries agriculture business and production

  • Claire Larson 7·25·12

    Great article! How much does the family farmer feel the push to go corporate? (And does he/she operate under the same legislation?)

    I’m reminded of my grandparents’ dairy- interrupted holiday celebrations to milk the cows, the names we gave the cows, the household decorations with depictions of cows… The animals were more than just a commodity.

  • amuzu mensah richard 7·26·12

    I think is good net to express the grievence of some family farmers at whole about their condition and how maintance of their farmer in which i guest the government should show more interest in it as we the developing countries are learning from you and the special aids we do get from you.We Ghanaian are very hardworking that even some times our products do go waste because the storage facilities are not enough to store our raw products such as corn which last week i watch a documentation whereby most of our products get wasted.Keep it for for us to also know and be aware of some these possible news.

  • SKA 7·26·12

    Pressures on aquafers are increasing yearly and the drought brings this issue close to home. Water issues cause national ripples (no pun intended) when it impinges on energy supplies. For example how much import did water issues in the Ogallala Aquifer carry before the Keystone?

  • Christopher Barden 7·27·12

    These are all great comments and questions. Water is certainly hugely important to farmers of all varieties. Here in California farmers are particularly sensitive to this each and every year while farmers in other regions of the US and the globe have their attention focused on water during particularly dry years.

    In California we play a very delicate balancing act between providing drinking water for our ever growing population, fishery and the responsibility to provide the water required to sustain the largest agricultural economy of the United States. I often have conversations with California farmers who are very upset by the current water policies in place. This is entirely understandable, however, equitable answers to the water problem are not so easy to address. Commercial salmon fishermen are just as concerned about their livelihoods as farmers and feel that they are just as entitled to protect their way of life and their place in the agricultural economy as anyone else. The fisher folk I speak with are pragmatic people who understand the value that farming plays in California and other Pacific Coast states. But, they say that they are often overlooked and outspent by farming lobbies and have less political muscle than farmers. As such they have taken the recourse available to them and that is to protect their rights using the constitutional means available to them.

    The impact of fracking and energy related developments are yet to be determined. There are any number of theories posited that range from there will be no impact to the developments are disastrous. Unfortunately as there is little emperical data on the matter the jury is still out. I am certain that agricultural interests should be foremost in the minds of policy makers presiding over these decisions, after all everyone eats.

    Caire asked if small farmers feel compelled to become more corporate and the answer is both yes and no. In certain farming sectors, like dairy and grain production, this pull is very strong. At this time it is often easier to manage a larger dairy or grain operation due to economies of scale. When a family is milking 50 to 100 cows even losing one or two cows is a tremendous blow. Purchasing food for the cattle and other farm supplies is also more expensive. So, there is undeniably a pull to become larger. On top of these concerns there is also a drop off in the number of family dairy farmers wanting to continue in the business. The result of this is that as folks retire from farming without children or others to take over the family farm it is often put up for sale and other opportunistic farmers can take advantage of this situation to grow their herds and land holdings. Other types of farming are not so impacted by this draw and often it is advantageous to stay smaller. This is particularly true of farmers who have a unique niche or or provide a luxury crop.

    In all nations throughout the entire world the post harvest loss of crops is a very real problem. Several years ago I visited a favorite spot of mine in the grain belt of the US several times over the course of the harvest and winter only to watch a huge mountain of harvested corn sit exposed to the elements and become unusable as there simply were not enough local grain storage facilities available. This very same thing happens all over the planet. Last winter I spoke with an agronomist in who focused her attention on Eastern and Southern Africa who told me that in that region alone around $4 billion per year was lost post harvest. I know that efforts are underway to develop better corn storage systems around the planet. Developing and implementing these technologies takes time. The good news is that food security is a now a recognized global concern and governments everywhere are focusing attention upon these problems. Just a few short years ago little global attention was being paid to these problems. All of that has changed.