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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
The United States of America is the world leader in agriculture. We have invested in domestic agricultural education, infrastructure and distribution, and reaped the rewards. Other countries look to us for new technologies and new systems. It is time to teach them more efficient farming methods.
We are a gifted nation, blessed with a unique, benevolent geography. The resources in our great arable expanses are nearly unparalleled in the rest of the world. We make tremendous use of our good fortune, growing enough food for our own people as well as for much of the world. The U.S agricultural sector generates well over $110 billion each year, and that money helps support federal and state governments, shippers, processors, wholesalers and producers alike. The overall impact of agriculture on our economy is tremendous.
A large percentage of the profits comes from the sale of agricultural surplus to countries across the globe. Step into a small store in bustling Accra, the capital of Ghana, and you’ll find food produced in America. Walk through a market in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and the same is true. Dine in a fine restaurant in London and chances are you’ll find American ingredients on the menu. Not only does the U.S. earn significant profits from the sales of our products, we also give away large amounts of food to relief agencies, governments and non-governmental groups.
Smarter farming feeds more people
Global populations are expanding at staggering rates, and current agricultural practices cannot keep up. In too many places, food production is not efficient. There are diverse reasons for this, from staid traditions to corruption to the insidious notion that farming is a lowly profession undertaken only by those incapable of doing anything else.
In the Western world, many of our wealthiest citizens began and/or have large holdings in agriculture. U.S. farmers are well respected and becoming even more so. Sadly, in other countries, hard-working farmers are often at the bottom of the economic strata, taken advantage of by layers of intermediaries, suppliers and corrupt regulators.
The United States is helping to change that. Academically, we are teaching people from developed and developing nations how to institute the latest growing technologies. We have agricultural outreach programs and cultural exchanges sponsored by the federal government and by non-governmental entities. While not entirely corruption-free, we can serve as a model for removing some of the graft and dishonesty that imperils agricultural success in nations on the rise.
Elevating the farming profession
The old paradigm of a small land-holder producing enough for the family and then selling the surplus is dangerously outdated, but still prevalent. Food production worldwide has to become more efficient to feed exponentially larger populations, and the U.S. can lead the charge by sharing knowledge with farmers in other countries about how to become more specialized and more organized in their purchasing and wholesaling practices. We can help them develop an espirit de corps to establish respect in their communities and a sense of pride in what they do. The modern farmer must take advantage of new opportunities, from improved organic systems to chemical-free farming methods to using smartphones to receive market reports and orders.
The farmers’ exchange programs are the greatest tools we can offer. These allow young or mid-career agriculturalists to come to the U.S. and live and work alongside American farmers and learn the work ethics, technologies, organization and honesty practiced in that community. Participants can earn money to invest in their agri-businesses at home while taking back a bank of knowledge and respect.
Sharing knowledge helps all
Teaching others our methods and practices will increase our benefits. A young person who learns how to operate an American-made tractor in the U.S. is more likely to buy one when he or she gets home. The same holds true for myriad other agricultural and consumer products that exchange-farmers experience while they’re here.
Agricultural exchanges foster connections and shared information that benefit all the participants. I have spoken to so many people from different parts of the world who have told me how their lives and the lives of their families and colleagues have greatly improved through the programs. One participant from Kenya recently told me that he was given more significantly more credence and looked to for guidance on his return. The impact on the U.S. economy should not be underestimated.
We must increase the numbers of farmers exchange programs. We will reap the rewards from our largesse, and we owe it to those from whom we have profited.
This week’s Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Christopher Barden is the vice president of Worldwide 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.
Photo: Christopher Barden. Credit: Maureen Ladley