What Farming Isn’t
The Food Movement Has Nothing To Do With Farming
This past May, I spent more days in a Ram 1500 pickup on dirt roads than in my apartment. I had the incredible opportunity to traverse the American heartland for just over two weeks, seeking out interesting stories from some of America’s most progressive farmers. Since I moved to California just about a year ago, my view of the endless acres of black soil and satellite-straight rows of corn and soybeans has changed, but not in the way I expected.
Farming in the Midwest: farming for the farmer’s market as scuba diving : sky diving. Same basic direction, but otherwise, literally different elements.
We live in an Instagram-ready, organic cold-pressed hemp milk age. To us, the word “farm” brings to mind a rustic (yet modern) retreat where a cornucopia of lusciously crisp fruit and vegetables are picked daily by weathered hands (body optional) and perfectly clean eggs are laid in perfectly clean straw in reclaimed wood barns with just enough dust in the air to create a flawless #nofilter “eggstra” special post.
After making my way from Iowa, through Minnesota, over to North Dakota, down through South Dakota and Nebraska, and back (stopping off in Illinois and Montana in between), I can safely say that the idyllic, pastoral daydream we cling to (and pay for) bears no resemblance to farming in the heartland. Or, frankly, to most farming, anywhere.
There is a number of reasons, I think, that this is true.
1. Farming isn’t growing fruits and vegetables.
Obviously, some farming is growing fruits and vegetables. But consider your local grocery store. When we walk into the produce section (which is probably 1/5th or so of the store) 90% of what we can see was likely grown in either Florida, California, or abroad. California and Florida combined make up less than 1% of total US cropland. Thus, most farmers are not vegetable farmers. The vast majority of farmers are grain farmers- they grow corn, soybeans, wheat, or barley, which makes sense when we consider that grain is what makes up much of the other 4/5ths of the grocery store.
It also makes sense because most of the US (and the world) simply isn’t fit for growing many of the fruits and vegetables we expect to be continuously available. Not only do fresh fruits and vegetables require warm weather, ample sunlight, and limited wind and pest exposure, they also require hand-picking which, in talking to farmers who couldn’t even find one hired man in their area to bring on part-time, is a laughable idea. Which brings me to:
2. Farming isn't done by hand.
I probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for tractors. I wish that was true because my parents had some awesome, tractor-based love story. But the reality is that tractors, sprayers, combines, and other farm machinery are the reason why the human race can scrape enough calories out of the dirt to feed billions of people. On our new age Insta-farms, we like hands. We like to think that our food passes only from plant to human to our mouths. If a human handled it, we think, it must be more wholesome, more nutritious, more real.
In the Midwest, that idea is comical. Mostly because it is so clearly a lie. Unless those soil-dusted, hard-working hands are your own, pulling the produce from the plant yourself and putting it directly in your mouth sans wash, it touches plenty of machines before it gets to you. Our produce is sorted by sorting machines, stored in refrigerators, transported in trucks, preserved with wax, bathed in special lighting and displayed on brand new checkered table clothes in roughed up wood baskets to make us feel like it was always just water, soil, sunshine, and hands. But farming in the 21st century, real farming, requires machines. And more importantly for not going out of business while farming in the 21st century requires very savvy and strategic use of machines. Which brings us to:
3. Farming is not forgiving.
The Ugly Fruit Movement has made farming vegetables more forgiving. Being an organic farmer makes farming more forgiving. Being a farmer who works or earns some kind of off-farm income makes farming more forgiving. Being a farmer who could be happy pursuing other things makes farming more forgiving.
Being a commodity farmer, particularly a commodity grain farmer in 2016, is not forgiving. A few million dollars on a farmer’s balance sheet (that’s money they’re personally liable for) might net a farmer $50,000.00 in a good year. While producing a commodity good that sells for the same price today that it did in the ’80s (not adjusted for inflation, the dollar-for-dollar same price), farmers pay a premium for the world’s most advanced mechanical and biological technologies, without which they will certainly go out of business. But by using these technologies and pursuing growth (a natural endeavor for small businesses), they are brutally criticized, both nationally and locally. Why? Because they’re moving farther and farther away from our fantasy farm, and their actions look more and more like those of a rational business entity. We don’t want our food grown by rational people. WE JUST WANT DISEMBODIED HANDS THAT HAVE TOUCHED DIRT.
Which brings us to the final isn’t:
4. Farming is not a choice.
I asked every farmer I met what he would do if he wasn’t a farmer.
Out of 23 farmers, not a single one could think of anything they would have rather done with their lives. Not a single one had ever even thought about it. Not even once.
All this is to say that it’s easy to sit in my favorite Bay Area cafe and bemoan our broken food system and discuss putting an end to Corn-porate Farming and bringing our local, bio-dynamic, community-supported farming way of life to the Midwest. But in reality, this is a false dichotomy. Conventional farming and farm-to-table farming exist separately and for very different reasons. They don’t even really compete.
I think part of our farm-to-table fantasy involves a tipping point beyond which the sheer gravity of urban gardens and artisan prosciutto butcheries will overwhelm the centuries-old traditions of American agriculture and the problems; soil degradation, nitrogen leeching, food deserts, obesity, etc., will magically fix themselves. As much as I want to believe in the power of soil-kissed hands, I think we might also need alternative strategies.
We need to empower farmers, the farmers who farm the vast majority of our country, to make improvements that respect the very real economic and social constraints that they face. It’ll take our finest technology, potentially a few more machines, and undoubtedly a large number of very smart brains. And maybe, just maybe, we can zoom our iPhone cameras out a little bit from those glorious, dirty hands, and remember that there’s a person attached. The hands can remind us that farming isn’t just about food.
It’s about people.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, a click on the green heart below would be wonderful. Looking forward to comments from disagreers! Then, you might enjoy exploring what exactly it means to be a farmer/person. @sarah_k_mock