5 Things I Learned Visiting a Farm

Working for a food company means that I spend a lot of time eating, writing and thinking about food. Over the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to go to where food starts…straight to the farms and fields where seeds turn into sustenance.

It is a genuine treat to see the start of what is a global supply chain for food.

Yet it is a rare opportunity as well in our food-obsessed culture. For every cooking competition show, there are approximately zero reality shows about how those ingredients are grown. There is no shortage of shows with naked people trying to survive the maelstrom that is Alaska real estate but farmers and agriculture is shockingly nowhere in the reality TV spectrum.

So with that, I submit to you a few amazing things I’ve learned tromping around real farms in Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Arkansas and Michigan.

  1. Less than 1% of Americans are farmers.

That may not be too surprising given the modern economy but think about those numbers for a second. One percent. If you are drafting an apocalypse survival team and only 1 out of 100 people know how to grow food you’d be picking them first or second round. Only doctors could nudge out farmers for the top of the draft board.

2. Big Ag is a myth

The overwhelming majority of that one percent of the population that are farmers are family run operations. Families that are often third, fourth and fifth generation. In many cases, Grandpa is still part of the farm…at least in an ex-officio capacity.

The notion that there are “factory farms” run by corporate conglomerates is not only untrue, it is harmful in that it creates a false narrative that the farm you zoom by at 70 miles an hour on the highway could be harboring something sinister.

Why don’t corporate players get into farming? It’s pretty simple really…

3. Farming is a high-cost, high-risk business

Tractors, planters, combines, seeds and even land is surprisingly expensive. A mid-line John Deere combine costs more than a Ferrari or two. Choice farm land in Nebraska can go for well over $10,000 per acre — and farms can easily require hundreds or even a few thousand acres of land.

So what risk factors do Farmers have? Rain, heat, drought, bugs, weeds and more. Entire crops can be wiped out by one bad storm or never get out of the ground with a prolonged drought.

Imagine the shark tank pitch. “I would like a million dollars for my idea. It is going to be super awesome and pay back well…unless it rains too much. Or if it doesn’t rain enough. Or if it rains too much or too little at the wrong time of the year. Oh…and if my idea pays off then I need another half million dollars next Spring. And then next Spring….pretty much every Spring forever.”

Not too many VC’s, investors, or corporations are willing to take on so much debt with so many completely unknowable, uncontrollable risk factors.

4. Organic is more about paperwork than process

In theory, there many things to feel good about organic agriculture. In reality to be certified organic is a logistical and paperwork chore. The organic designation is an official verification by the USDA that a farm is following specific practices in how it grows food. How is an official verification managed? By paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork. Do you like filing your taxes? Imagine that mountain of paperwork multiplied by 10…plus when you are filing that paperwork you aren’t doing the things that help your farm grow more food. Hats off to the organic farmers who do what they do…but it is very understandable that many farmers who are great stewards of the earth simply don’t want to be bothered with the burden of busywork that is required to be organic.

Oh…and if you want to be organic….you have to spend three years walking that walk before you get even one iota of credit for it. Disclaimer — Kashi is actually doing something to reward the farmers who are starting that three year journey.

5. Farmers are super smart

So you have a multi-million dollar investment that is literally at the whim of weather and nature. How do you manage that? Well, it helps to be smart…and farmers certainly are. Every farmer I’ve met is college educated and is as comfortable with spreadsheets and financial forecasting as they are with dirt under their fingernails. Economics, biology, chemistry, accounting, engineering, agronomy. These are the disciplines that a farmer uses every day to make sure that their million dollar investment is gonna pay off.

So why do they do it? Unsurprisingly, it is a very millennial tendency that farmers have. They want to do something that is bigger than themselves. One farmer I talked to recently said, “it is an amazing thing to turn this soil. To look at my plot of land and think how this land that was my great-grandfathers is now mine…and feeds people from next door to around the globe.”

Plus…it’s cool as heck to get to ride a $400,000 tractor.