I’m pretty good at putting my foot in my mouth sometimes.
Yesterday, I was on a panel for the AgChat Foundation’s annual conference, which is taking place in Austin this week. Odd Duck chef Sam Hellman-Mass and Lindsay Chichester with the University of Nebraska Extension Service. The moderator, Mark Gale, was very clear that the room would be a mix of large and small scale farmers with all kinds of backgrounds and perspectives on food, from huge cash grain farmers in the Midwest to small-scale dairy farmers with just a few dozen cows.
In general, the conversation on the panel and with the audience (they asked questions throughout the session) was interesting and engaging about labeling and GMOs, how to get consumers cooking so that they’ll use whole ingredients instead of processed ones and stiking a balance between pushing and supporting local, small family farms while knowing that the world needs the larger operations in order to sustain the population.
One audience member, who runs a somewhat large conventional dairy in Wisconsin, asked us directly "What we thought of her." Literally, as in, do you hate us for running confined animal operations and would you like to see us fail? It was a tricky question that I tried to answer as honestly as possible while still suggestiong that perhaps there is always room for improvement as we learn about new ways to do things and receive pressure from customers to offer different kinds (and quality) of products.
At some point, I tried to connect with the audience by acknowleding that all of the farmers I know don’t make much money and are motivated to continue farming because they are passionate about providing safe, healthy food in a way that is as least detrimental to the earth and animals involved in the process as they can.
The words "farmers are poor" came out of my mouth, and the room shifted with a nervous laugh.
These people are not poor, I suddenly realized.
They are not Swede Farm, the Houston-area goat farm that sells milk and cheese at Austin markets that is so close to closing that they’ve turned to crowd-funding to keep the dairy open until fall, when their newest goats will be ready to milk.
They are not Carol Ann Sayle of Boggy Creek, who turned 70 this year and could make far more money selling her paintings than her produce and recently opened my eyes to the economic duality and shared reliance between the upper and lower classes, whose lifestyles (and for the latter, employment) couldn’t exist without the other.
They are not Dewberry Hills, Ottmers or Hairston Creek, whose uninsured farmers have suffered physical ailments or injuries that were costly enough to put their family farms at risk of closure.
I grew up in a farming community, and from my non-farming perspective, it seemed like they were making enough to get by, but not a whole lot more than that. My high school boyfriend’s family ran a small farm, but both parents had full-time jobs because they couldn’t live off their small livestock herd.
More than 50,000 farms in the United States bring in more than a million dollars a year, and that number likely included another member of the audience, who — rightly — justified her right to make a good life, sending her kids to college and not having to scrape by with every gallon of milk sold.
I’ve been ruminating on my eye-opening gaff and am still unsettled by this disparity between the hard life I see local farmers trying to make for themselves by selling mostly organic produce and meat (or at least grass-fed/pastured) at farmers markets and this world of high-dollar agriculture based on production methods that are so often vilified in the media and countless recent documentaries.
Although I came into food with more of an outright sustainable food activist mentality than I do now, I’ve always tried to keep a really open mind about what it really takes for a food system to flourish. I need to be able to write in a way that acknowledges the economies of scale that large farms can achieve and the reality that few of us can buy $8/lb chicken if that means we can’t also pay to keep a roof over our heads and the lights turned on.
If I can’t afford to eat only local, organic food, how can I preach to millions of other middle class families that they should? But it’s also true that Americans pay a relatively small percent of their yearly income on food and throw 40 percent of it away, an embarrassment of riches to every family both at home and abroad that can’t afford a week’s worth of groceries.
As I keep all of this in mind, including the countless videos and documentaries I’ve watched that make me want to encourage dairy farmers to give their cows a little more room to roam and conventional farmers to back off on the pesticides, as this fellow mom tells me about running her dairy farm and paying for her kids’ college (a luxury my own parents couldn’t afford).
All I could think about was how many gallons of $3 milk she’s selling to make that kind of money.
I tried to put into words, kindly and respectfully, that perhaps we all have to make sacrifices in order to lead conscionable lives that support the kind of world we want to see exist.
That an ideal farmer takes into account all the variables, including what’s best for the animals, land and end consumers, as they make decisions about how they want to run their businesses, which could mean changing production methods as we learn more about the deleterious effects of certain aspects of conventional farming and ranching.
What those farms look like will vary, and there will always be plenty of paying customers who are satisfied with (or don’t have any other choice but to buy) the cheapest, lowest quality product.
I guess I just hard seeing those farmers sitting so high on the hog, if you will, but it’s a stark reminder that that upper/lower class duality that Sayle and I were just talking about goes both ways.