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