This week I had a thought-provoking lesson in where our food comes from. I was invited by my friend Liz to attend a breakfast with members of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, a “a newly formed alliance consisting of a wide range of prominent farmer- and rancher-led organizations and agricultural partners.” The purpose of our gathering was to learn more about some of the challenges and rewards of farming and ranching from their perspective.
Upon entering, I was instantly greeted by a friendly table of farmers and ranchers, as well as this delicious menu. We ordered our food and then got down to business.
I started with a lovely glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice.
My first course was a mini vanilla yogurt parfait made with fresh berries and granola. It was deliciously tart and must have been Greek yogurt, which made the whole thing even better.
And my main course was the egg white omelet, which was made with mushrooms and asparagus.
It was very good – although the cheese fiend in me felt something was missing.
The omelet was served with fresh fruit and whole wheat toast to round out a great meal.
My conversation with Vanessa, Helen, Derek, Shawna, Stacey, David, Laura and Varel was stimulating, to say the least. Their professions ranged from soybean to cattle to dairy to sheep farming, among others. I asked them an assortment of questions, namely how they felt about the local, grass-fed and organic movements, as well as how they felt about preconceptions the public has that aren’t necessarily true.
Everyone was eager to share their perspective! Here is what I learned:
- Stacey: Winter in Kansas makes it difficult to keep cows grass-fed because there is no grass. Instead, Stacey feeds her cows an assortment of self-grown alfalfa and sorghum wheat, in addition to corn silage. Another thing she makes sure of is that she receives information back on exactly where all her beef is shipped to. Rather than simply sending it off and having no idea where it ultimately goes, Stacey likes to stay informed so that she can ensure her meat remains high-quality and is sold by the best sources.
- David: With nearly 1,000 gallons of milk being generated per day from cows on David’s dairy farm, he easily answered my question of, “why not go local?” by asking me whether I could drink an entire gallon myself in one day. I imagined my milk-fanatic husband, and even he can’t drink an entire gallon. And so with town populations of less than 1,000 people nearby, it makes it very difficult for David to stay close to home. There is much more supply than demand, and so he works with a cooperative: Dairy Farmers of America.
- Derek spoke a lot on the migration of farms and why he and his family ultimately chose western Kansas for their crop and cattle farm. As farmers, it’s important to move to where the resources are, because it’s a whole lot cheaper to move cows to where their food is then to move food to the cows. He also spoke on the grass-fed movement and said that those cows require at least 10-15 acres of pasture, with an acre being roughly equivalent to a football field. It was interesting to realize just how much grass is needed to keep those cows happy, especially during drought periods like the one we are having across the Midwest right now.
- Laura was great and even invited me to her family’s small farm in Kenosha! She writes an awesome blog and is a fan of The Hunger Games. Laura also spoke to the idea of farm migration. Though her family still has land in Kenosha, most of their Jersey cow dairy farm is further west of the city because there is simply not enough space. It’s great for them now because their vet is only two miles away rather than the one and a half hours it would take if they were still near the city. Local production by nature, Laura says, is a very small scale operation because of the fact that you have to be so much closer to people, where land is more sparse thanks to development complexes. But as Laura’s brother puts it, “You only get one crop of houses.”
- Vanessa spoke to the fact that often times the public hears about one negative incident on a farm and it goes viral, creating a very bad perception of a farm that may otherwise be functioning well. She stressed the fact that at the end of the day, we are all human. Most, if not all, farmers, care deeply for their animals and crops. They also work hard to hire people who care just as much as they do, but it’s always possible that someone who seems great on the outset could ultimately do something wrong. We all make mistakes, she says, but they are working hard every day to ensure that those are few and far between.
When the floor was opened to the entire room after breakfast, animal welfare was a concern that came up first. It was amazing to hear stories from these farmers and ranchers on how much they care about their animals – whether they are ultimately raising them for food or for dairy, wool, etc. Varel says he knows his sheep so well that he can actually interpret differences in the sounds they make to know whether something is wrong. He also says he does a fair amount of research on animal behavior. There is a very emotional component to caring for animals and the farmers and ranchers don’t forget about the human element as well – the fact that much of what they are raising will ultimately impact the people who eat their food, drink their milk and so on.
One other important discussion point was on chemicals. None of the farmers and ranchers at my table were organic, but Helen also stressed the fact that the chemicals they use are very expensive, so it’s important for them to be precise and only spray the bare minimum, rather than “throwing chemicals everywhere” as some people believe. It was also apparent that companies like Monsanto don’t “own” them. Many of the farmers and ranchers spoke to the fact that they can buy from any company they want.
All in all, it was an incredibly lively and informative discussion. I learned a lot from these farmers and ranchers and have developed even further respect for the amount of work that goes into their daily lives. It’s just one more reason to always be grateful for the food on our tables.
I would love to hear YOUR thoughts on any and all of the above!