Monday, October 24, 2011

Real Farmers, Real Food

Today is Food Day. You mean you didn't get the day off? Me neither. In fact, we'll likely try to gather up those heifers that didn't cooperate last week.

Food Day was organized by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. However, I'm not so sure that the Center for Science in the Public Interest is interested in me and my family, a real Kansas farm family.

Some of Food Day's founding principles downplay the importance of modern agriculture and criticize the way of life of many food producers who don’t fit the “local” or “niche” mold. For example, two of Food Day's goals include “limiting big agribusiness” and “reforming factory farms” – terms that conjure up negative and misleading stereotypes about today’s agriculture industry. Here's the truth: 99 percent of American farms are owned by individuals, family partnerships or family corporations. And in 2011, there are only 210,000 of us left.

By definition, I suppose our methods of food production here on the County Line aren't "local." We sell our grain to the local elevator, which sells it to bigger elevators for export, to flour mills in the region or to feedlots for feed grain. I'm not taking the wheat we raise and grinding it into flour myself. And, yes, we used fertilizer and herbicides on the crop. It's not "organic" by definition.

We sometimes sell half a beef to someone local. But it isn't organic or exclusively "grass-fed," two attributes that seem to be buzz words for "healthy" products these days.

I'm all for the producers who are making a living by selling organic foods or who have found a niche by selling locally. I love the Farmers' Market in the summertime, too. But it's not how we are going to feed our nation and the world.

I think that many of our most vocal critics would prefer that our farms still look like this. It's a photo from my husband's family from a hundred years ago or more. A similar photo was hung in my Grandpa Leonard's office. These images are part of both Randy and my history. We both come from families who have been farming for generations.

However, the same people who want us to farm with horses and mules still want to drive the latest cars. They spread the news about how unethical modern farming is by using the latest in phones and technology. I'm kind of guessing that they - like me - enjoy having grapes in the produce aisle all year long and an array of foods to fill the grocery cart.

I'm guessing they don't want to move back to middle America and take up farming themselves. Farmers and ranchers make up less than 2 percent of the population. If we go back to the horse and buggy days, it's going to take a bunch more of us to create the food and fiber necessary to feed and clothe America, much less have enough to share with hungry people around the world.

Modern food production relies on a mix of tradition and technology. And here's a news flash: Efficient cattlemen and women are a boon for the environment. Efficient grain farmers are a boon for the environment. Washington State University animal scientist Jude Capper says:
"In every part of the world, we're going to face the issues of feeding more people on less land with fewer resources."
She cited estimates that, by 2050, worldwide population will increase by 50 percent and we'll need 70 percent more food to support the people.

Just this weekend, I heard the population of the world topped 7 billion. We can't feed all those people solely with teams of horses and mules. It can't be done.

In 1977, it took five animals to produce the same number of pounds of beef that it takes four animals to produce today. Capper says the efficiency gains from 1977 to 2010 amount to a 19 percent point reduction in feed use, a 12-point decrease in water needed and a 33-point drop in land required per pounds of beef.

While our industry may not be perfect, American agriculture has shown a commitment to continuous improvement- be it for food safety, animal well-being, or environmental stewardship.

I clipped an article out of my regional newspaper last week. The headline was:
"Consumers paid more for food, gas last month."

When you read beyond the headline, the article says: "Food prices rose 0.4 percent in September, pushed up by big increases in the dairy, cereals, and fruits and vegetables categories. Gas prices rose 2.9 percent."

Nobody likes it when prices go up. I don't know many farmers who are raising everything they need for their own family's tables right on their own farms. We shop at the grocery stores, too. I don't like it when gas prices go up. I don't like it that it costs $300,000-plus to buy a new tractor (That's why we don't buy new. Used is expensive enough!)

But the truth is that U.S. citizens spend the lowest percentage of their disposable income on food.

And lest you think farmers are lining their pockets with all the extra dough we get from the 0.4 percent increase in food prices last month, here's another graphic about how the food dollar is divvied up.

(Click on the picture to read the small print in the graphic.)

What it boils down to is that the farmer is getting about 19 cents of every retail dollar spent on food. Off-farm costs (marketing expenses, processing, wholesaling, distributing and retailing of food products) accounts for 81 cents of every retail dollar spent on food.

In 1980, farmers received 31 cents out of every retail dollar spent on food in America. (Remember, today it's 19 cents!) Today, each U.S. farmer provides food and fiber for 155 people in the U.S. and abroad. In 1980, when we were getting 31 cents out of each dollar, we were only providing food and fiber for 115 people. How's that for efficiency?

Want to learn more? Check out Real Farmers, Real Food. One section dispels myths about food production. You can even hear a message from our current Miss America Teresa Scalan about the importance of agriculture.

As she says, "Not everyone farms, but everyone has to eat."

So, Happy Food Day! I'll be the one out on the 4-wheeler hoping that the heifers cooperate this time.


  1. Great article, Kim! Love that old pic from your family. Amazing how far we've come. I just wish more of the public understood the economics of farming.

  2. Thanks Pam! I'm hoping to create more of an understanding by telling the story of one Kansas farm family. Thanks for taking time to comment!

  3. Excellent article and explanation about the dynamics of Agriculture and food production!