Many factors influence consumers’ food-purchasing decisions, including farmers’ growing methods and farm size. The terms “factory farms” and “industrial farming” do not have great connotations these days. The recent Food Dialogues:Boston presented by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance® (USFRA®) sought to explain similarities and differences between large and small farms. Speakers discussed biotechnology (genetically modified organism or GMO), transparency and routine use of antibiotics. The event featured a panel of farmers, ranchers and food pundits. (View their full bios here.)
The program opened with videos profiling three American farmers of different sizes followed by a panel discussion led by Alan Bjerga, author of “Endless Appetites: How the Commodities Casino Creates Hunger and Unrest” and agriculture policy reporter for Bloomberg News.
The panelists shared their stories and perspectives during the event:
Small conventional grain farmer
Leah Beyer is a Farmer and Consultant with the Indiana Soybean Alliance and Indiana Soybean Association in Shelby County, Indiana. She and her family have off-farm jobs. The Beyers grow soybeans and corn on 250 acres. Their neighbor custom harvests their crops. The Beyers use sustainable soil conservation practices and manure amendments to retain and replenish soils for future generations. They work to grow strong plants that offer good nutrition. They use biotechnology, crop rotation and herbicides to control weeds and increase their yields.
The Beyers grow what consumers demand and what they can process. Fear of GMOs or GEs (Genetic Engineering) has created a boom for organic soybeans and corn growers. The non-GMO market is too far from the Beyers farm. The nearby elevators pour all corn into the same bins. There is no separate organic processing and storage facility near the Beyer’s farm. Beyer wishes she had access to export markets. Her location, infrastructure and logistics make that impossible.
Smaller seed orders often mean higher prices. Beyers said sometimes small farmers can get a discount on trial seeds or leftovers from large farmers’ orders.
Medium grain and livestock farmer
Bill Luckey and his sons raise soybeans (for oil and as livestock feed), 2,000 pigs and nearly 150 beef cattle near Columbus, Nebraska. This 700-acre farm supports two of his sons and has been in the Luckey family for three generations. Another of Luckey’s son works for a nearby Confined Area Feeding Operation (CAFO) pumping that operation’s manure to farmlands up to five miles away. Luckey said this allows other farms to capture the manure’s nutrients. Another son works for a nursery and would like to come home, but their land cannot support another family.
Luckey said GMO soybeans work best for him, produce a better crop and are good for his local environment. Luckey has reduced his carbon footprint and water needs using GMO soybeans. His soy meal pig feed is easily digestible. The pigs live indoors and their manure drops through a slotted floor to a holding area with a 13-month capacity. That manure is later spread on crop fields instead of commercial fertilizer. The barns are sanitized between batches of pigs. The Luckeys use antibiotics for a few weeks while weaning the pigs and when animals are sick. Luckey said farmers change practices slowly.
Large grain and livestock grower
A video featured Chuck Meyers, a sixth-generation farmer growing corn and soybeans on 1,800 acres in northeast Nebraska. His farm’s crop rotation alternates corn and soybeans. Meyers can use no-till farming with these GMO crops that offer higher yields and better protein than non-GMO crops. He plants right into last year’s plant residue, which acts as mulch to prevent erosion during heavy rains. Meyers said much of the soy and corn grown in the Midwest is used as animal feed. His farm supports two families using new technology. Meyers is concerned with future generations and wants to “pass on his legacy to the next generation.” They operate as a farm corporation.
Small, diversified produce and livestock farmer and value-added producer
Jamie Cruz of Springdell Farm, Littleton, MA is a fourth generation small farmer. She sells direct to consumers within 40 miles of her farm. Cruz and her mom grow produce and raises livestock on 60 acres and 250 acres of leased land but wish for 500 acres to satisfy all their customers’ demands. High regional real estate prices make that dream impossible. Land access is a huge problem for new farmers.
The Cruzes offer fruits, vegetable and animal products through a CSA, a farm stand and farmers markets. They also sell to school cafeterias and restaurants. Cruz rotates her crops regularly but cannot afford to leave fields fallow. Cruz used her own compost and manure as soil amendments. Every inch of the farm must yield one or more crops per year to keep the farm viable.
Cruz is too small to have a dedicated seed or fertilizer rep, but she does work with a crop advisor or inspector weekly. She cannot buy a tractor-load of supplies but teams up with neighbor farmers for volume discounts.
Large diversified produce grower
Bruce Rominger of Rominger Brothers Farm in Winters, California operates a fifth-generation, diversified operation. The Rominger brothers raise conventional and organic row crops including processing tomatoes, onions, wheat, oats, rice, alfalfa, sunflowers, wine grapes and sheep. Rominger plants hedgerows to minimize wind erosion and for pollinator habitat. He rotates crops and uses drip tape to reduce weed and pest pressure, environmental impact and water use. He adjusts crops plans for limited or plentiful rainfall (and sales contracts for finished produce) until the moment seeds are sown. This farm is evolving; they often try new things to become more profitable. Rominger wants to leave a sustainable operation to the next generation.
The media has made big farmers and Agribusiness the bad guys. Rominger is convinced his large California farm has a smaller carbon footprint than a small farm in most regions of the country. His central valley farm has lower costs and uses fewer resources per food unit than small farmers use. Rominger continued that large farms are more efficient and sustainable. “Whether we are large or small [growing] farm, we’re all going in that direction,” he said. Scale does not ensure or prevent sustainability or environmental protection. Farms must operate as a viable business at any size.
In our capitalist system, efficient seed and fertilizer companies have evolved into a few large leaders including Monsanto.
Rominger explained that large food companies face increasing consumer pressure. In turn, these companies audit and encourage farmers to use best practices. This leads to better environmental protection and long-term farm sustainability.
Changing Food systems
Lori Renzi, Vice President for Brand Strategy and Development at Charlie Baggs Culinary Innovations in Chicago, Illinois said consumers want to know what is in their food as well as how and where it was grown. Many consumers do not perceive GMOs or GEs as safe. Foods concerns are growing with rising health issues - increasing allergies, childhood diabetes, autism and more.
Renzi reported that consumers request simpler and shorter ingredient lists and ask suppliers for locally sourced foods. Consumers are sophisticated; more Foodies buy local and organic foods. Consumers want to support their neighbors and local farmers over distant, mass producers.
There is great distrust of government since the shut down. The Millennial generation wants transparency.
Enzi reminded the audience that not everyone could afford buying healthier farmers market foods. Some consumers’ financial position means they can only afford cheap packaged foods like macaroni and cheese.
Food Day Founder
Michael Jacobson, founder of national Food Day and Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) addressed consumer concerns for water and wildlife. He expressed concern over GE crops and the risks of repeated use of glysophate. The “chemical treadmill” leads to herbicide-resistant weeds and removes native plants necessary to migrating insects and birds. Monarch butterflies need milkweed – farmers are too efficient at killing milkweed.
Jacobson said crowded barns often lead to routine use of antibiotics, which can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The FDA has discussed this for decades and still has not banned routine use of antibiotics.
Jacobson agreed with Swanson, Rominger and Renzi that consumers want good, safe food, cheap. Most will pay a bit more for local and fresh food. Most enjoy knowing their farmer. Farms are a great way to protect land from suburbanization. Jacobson said everyone benefits when land grows food instead of houses.
In the 70s, leaders sneered at organic growers; now this is the most profitable agricultural sector.
Food Justice means farm workers should get a living wage. Not everyone can afford to eat at trendy local, organic Foodie restaurants, shop at farmers markets, or make up-front investments in CSA shares.
Michael Swanson, Agricultural Economist at Wells Fargo Bank NA in Minneapolis, Minnesota said the NAFTA countries are the largest importers/exporters of food on the planet. Countries that are “Self sufficient [have a] limited menu. Trade allows more diversity,” said Swanson. We import Mexican beer made of American grains and Mexican water. Swanson said our largest food and beverage trade deficit is in French wine.
Farms need to operate as viable businesses. Fallow fields or cover crops do not bring in money this year. Well funded, forward thinking farmers can afford to make these types of soil improvements.
Rural customers want local food too but they offer smaller markets for farmers. People do not always spend to match their principals.
Swanson said many consumers care about cheap food with easy meal preparation, long shelf life, convenient packaging and variety. Swanson said more Americans snack than eat proper meals. Beyers agreed that many Americans do not cook. Some of her friends have no idea what to do with a half a cow or even frozen meat. She said, “You thaw it in the fridge.”
One panelist said the way to get land is to start a small urban farm near customers or marry a farmer’s daughter.
Most farmers do not get a day off; many cannot afford a vacation or even their taxes. When choosing farming as a career, be sure you know the impact it will have on your lifestyle.
Rominger said perennial or permanent crops like walnuts and almonds could support a family on 40 acres. Fruit and berry crops need fewer acres than grains but have higher input costs and lower margins.
Cruz is excited about the increasing interest in local food happening across the country. Farmers should use social media to reach consumers and maintain a dialog. Consumers should ask farmers about their practices. Cruz urged consumers to “Vote with your fork.”
Swanson said farming is a team sport. Farmers’ partners are specialists; no one stands alone.
Rominger said there are many opportunities for young urban farmers operating on a small scale. They can manage with hand tools while they learn from others and build their businesses Rominger continued, these is a new generation that wants to come into agriculture because there are profits to be made.
Learn more at www.FoodDialogues.com. Since its launch in 2011, the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance has hosted six major events, including 14 panels streamed live online. To view past events, see New York Food Dialogues or follow USFRA on Twitter @USFRA using #FoodD.
A similar story ran in the Midwest and Eastern December, 2013 editions Country Folks.