Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Incredible Cause for Concern

What is your definition of “farmer?” Apparently to many of the visitors to the Incredible Food Show in Lexington, Ky. this past weekend it is someone who is growing their own food in their backyard or selling at a “Farmer’s” market.

Farm women volunteers, who are part of the CommonGround initiative, went to the Incredible Food Show to engage with the public and answer any questions they may have about how food is produced on their farms. I was able to assist by moderating a panel discussion about food marketing and production concerns, as well as, encourage conversations at the CommonGround booth.

While it seemed everyone was glad we were there, it really shocked me that every time I mentioned to someone that we were there on behalf of farmers to encourage conversation about how food is produced, the instant response was, “Oh, I love that. I visit the Farmer’s Market all the time.” Or, “My sister has a garden. That’s great.”

The Voltaggio brothers - of Top Chef fame - showed the audience at the Incredible Food Show in Lexington how to use every part of local veggies for some very creative and "artful" eating.

Another thing that really got to me was the fact that one of the guest celebrity chefs, Michael Voltaggio (his brother Bryan was also there) made the comment during their show that “produce from local farmers was great, but everything at the grocery store was test tube food grown in a factory.”

Really? Why does everything think that?

I admit 100% that the fruits and vegetables grown right under our noses taste better to the 100th degree. Farmers that have local markets are able to pick the produce at the peak of freshness and can get it to the consumer very quickly. Unfortunately, this makes up a very small portion of the food supply, at least in Kentucky. There is a big push right now to get more local food to our local customers, but it will take some time.

In the meantime, however, the produce farmer in Ohio, or even California, who is large enough to service several grocery stores in our state now has a big “X” on his/her face. Some folks are just convinced that since the farm is not “local” and is producing food on several hundred acres instead of two, that the product is bad, industrial food.

At what point does a farmer or farm become “industrial?” And when did “success” become a bad word in agriculture?

Having visited several Kentucky farms recently, I wish all the best for them. If Mary and Shane Courtney’s vegetable business is thriving, and they are able to add more acres, more labor, and service more customers, I hope that is what they do. And what if they are able to grow enough produce that they can move beyond the local CSAs, wholesale and restaurant markets? Is there a point where they will no longer be considered farmers? Maybe that is when they are able to hire enough help that they can actually take a vacation during the growing/harvest season? Heaven forbid.

We have farmers and farms of all types and sizes, using various production techniques and located in all geographic areas. Some areas are great at growing produce, and other land is best suited for grains or livestock production. I know that it will take all farmers and farms to satisfy the needs of our growing population. Just today I saw the following statistic:

“Up until 1920 more people lived on farms than in cities and it took almost 20 million farms to feed the U.S. population which at the time was about 100 million people. Advances in and modernization of agriculture since then now allows for 6.5 million farms to feed 300 million people in the U.S. and export food to people around the world.”

While some may not like the idea of fewer farmers producing more food, this is our current food reality, and I don’t think it is all bad. Jerome Monroe Smucker of Ohio made apple cider from a few apple trees planted by Johnny “Appleseed” in the late 1800s. As popularity grew beyond the locals, he needed more supplies of fruit and he eventually had to move some of the processing to Washington, where fruit was more plentiful. Now his family’s products are sold all over the world.

Back to Kentucky, many of our grain farmers are selling corn and wheat to the local distilleries for bourbon and other spirits. Those products are also sold worldwide. Our local family grain farmers are selling to the food industry as well. Our wheat ends up in crackers and cookies sold throughout the U.S. at Wal-Mart stores via Siemer Milling in Hopkinsville. Our corn ends up in corn chips sold all over the country via Mesa Foods in Louisville. Weisenberger Mills in Midway has used corn and wheat from local farmers since 1865 to make its baking products.

My hope is that no matter the origin of the food products, the consumer remembers there is a face behind the production of the food ingredients, and that face is local to someone. To me, the term “farmer” goes beyond a person or family growing enough fruits and vegetables for themselves and few folks at a farmer’s market. It goes beyond the person like me with a few chickens in a coop. Farmers are producing food for the masses.

Just a side note before I close – I was also perplexed at literature I saw from Whole Foods at the Incredible Food Show. On the back of a local magazine, they placed an ad that said “Eat Seasonal. Eat Local.” On the front page of their newsletter/coupon book, however, they were advertising a pasta product produced in Italy. To me this is very hypocritical. The whole premise of eating local is to reduce the environmental impact of shipping food all over the place. Why aren’t they selling pasta made from Durum wheat in the good ole USA? Seems like the Pacific Northwest, where Durum is grown by our farmers, is a little more local than Italy. I’m just saying.


  1. As a ranching family I completely agree. It is a sad commentary on our society today that to be viewed as a "farmer" or "rancher" and not be labeled as a corporate producer by the masses you can not be too successful. We produce our calves each year with all the daily work being done by my husband, our two daughters, myself and one very hard working employee. We get no vacations or holiday's off as the cattle do not take these times off. Farmer's are no different. We need to as a group speak up and represent ourselves and not let those who are not knowledgeable on the subject represent us. Thank you for speaking up and continue the great work.

  2. Excellent points! While we *are* small scale the idea that those larger than we are somehow are bad just doesn't ring true. I'm not sure how people continue to say 'eat seasonal' when they live in the north - snowcones through the winter? Barring meats and dairy products, there isn't a great deal produced in the snow for fresh veggies and fruits. Yes we can preserve food - but most don't. I've recently spoken with several in passing who think what we're doing is a great idea - but too risky to invest in to allow buying land in Kentucky to be able to do a little more. We shouldn't buy feed as it's GMO but there's no financial support towards raising it ourselves. I suppose some think we should just give up and buy at the store. The negativity is much and too often from those who *say* they support small farms.

  3. No genetically engineered foods. No high fructose corn syrup.

  4. Excellent blog. Thank you for putting things in perspective and shining the light on some myths and misconceptions.

  5. Call me naive, but if someone understood the connection of the small farmer wouldn't that be an opportunity and building block for helping to understand larger scale producers?

    I attended the Incredible Food Show. Your booth was in a magical location, where there could have been plenty of opportunity for positive conversations. I stopped by twice. The first time it was unattended. The second time I was ignored. I love Kentucky Agriculture and producers great and small. I believe each have a place and there should be less in-fighting among us. Why is it so hard to just get along?

  6. If you're going to delete my comment about your misspelling, at least FIX the misspelling! It's DURUM wheat. DURUM.

  7. Great Article!! For those who don't know the difference. Durham wheat is used for making pasta, while the harder whole wheat is used for bread. http://www.duke.edu/~charvey/options/gi/wheat.htm . High fructose corn syrup is not grown on the farm. It doesn't come from trees like maple syrup. Farmers produce the corn though.

  8. Excellent article! You have hit the nail on the head. I am appalled at the so-called food "cognoscente" who deride the men and women everywhere who are putting food on our tables and in our mouths.


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