Taking Care of our Farmers

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We have three farmers (and two farmers-in-training) on our farm right now. It’s a tough time for anyone in agriculture right now.

To say it’s a bad time to be a farmer would be an understatement the size of the grain piles dotting the Kansas landscape. During the past few years farming has become a losing proposition. Grain prices are down, international rhetoric and negotiations have killed export opportunities and a drought has made it nearly impossible to grow much of anything in many parts of Kansas. Add to that marginal profits, already tight lines of credit and a consumer base that thinks you are doing it all wrong and its enough to make anyone want to throw in the towel.

My husband recently conducted an interview with a local television station on farmer suicide and mental health. I have heard the statistics before – farming has the highest suicide rate of any profession, double that of veterans – but had never really stopped to think about the situation and its contributing factors. It’s a scary statistic and one that has only been made worse given the current political and economic climate.

(See his full interview here: http://www.ksn.com/news/local/kansas-farmer-talks-about-alarming-suicide-rate/1191543047)

When people experience thoughts of suicide or depression they are encouraged to seek help. But my guess is my farmer is a lot like other farmers, not prone to sharing his feelings or airing his struggles. He is a reflective man and often doesn’t even let me in on some of his concerns and frustrations. That mentality is hard to change but it’s literally killing our farmers.

There is so much in farming that cannot be controlled – the weather, rain, trade opportunities, markets, commodity prices, legislation and regulation and rental rates. It’s an industry that buys retail and sales wholesale. It bends to the whim of Mother Nature and commodity brokers and can be undone in the blink of an eye. Farmers don’t do it for the fame or fortune, but they are often the sole income for a family and are the fourth or fifth (maybe more) generation to farm the same land. That puts farmers in a unique but overwhelming situation when the future isn’t clear. Add to that the fact most farmers have never had another job or entertained the idea of working anywhere but on the family farm and you have professionals believing there is no where to go.

The agriculture community has awaken to the mental health crisis in its midst, and the newest version of the farm bill has funding in place to help create or grow support systems for farmers and rural workers. But nothing can change if farmers don’t start asking for help and recognizing the points of stress that can or will lead to more substantial actions and decisions on their part. These are difficult times by anyone’s standards and we must continue to remind our farmers that asking for help or admitting failure isn’t a sign of weakness but a normal reaction to really difficult times.

Where Can You Turn: Thank you to Kansas Wheat for putting together an exhaustive list of resources for both financial and mental/emotional issues as well as options for spouses and others who are dealing with depression. http://kswheat.com/news/2018/02/19/farmer-suicide-rate-is-concerning-but-resources-for-solutions-are-available

Our farm, like most in Kansas, is still alive and operational. We’re in the middle of planting soybeans and moving cattle to summer pasture. We continue to streamline costs and operations, when possible, and pray for rain every chance we get. But as the drought lingers and the politics of farming only gets more hectic, I hope my farmer and others across the country to remember to ask for help and speak up when it all gets to be too much. We love our farmers, without them we would all go hungry and naked.

 

National Farmer Day: The many hats of a 21st Century farmer

It’s National Farmers Day. To many people, farming is a simplistic occupation and the farmer a nice but traditional man who plants the seeds and harvests the crop. But when I look at my farmer, I see a man who has 100 jobs, a million responsibilities and a variety of skills that serve him in all aspects of the job.

As I watched my husband work on the combine this evening, I made a mental list of his many skills, responsibilities and titles. Here are just a few roles and responsibilities he carries while “farming”:

– A veterinarian, administering treatments to sick animals

– A mechanic, repairing broken farm vehicles

– A technician, fixing broken implements

– A gardener, tending to his plants and checking soil health and moisture

– A truck drive, moving crops and cattle down the road

– A cowboy, herding cattle and moving them to new pasture ground

– A welder, repairing broken fencing and equipment

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The boys and I paid the farmer hubs a visit to the field tonight. We don’t see much of dad during harvest.
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The farmer and his father work to repair a bearing on the combine header. Owen provided supervision for the job.

 

– A caretaker, tending to sick animals and watching over newborn calves

– A nigh watchman, keeping track of the neighbors while he’s burning the midnight oil planting wheat or cutting soybeans

– A salesman, finding markets and opportunities for his grains and cattle

– A banker, managing his finances and planning for the next season

– An accountant, tracking purchases, paying bills and ensuring it all balances at the end of the day

– An investor, leveraging his equity in hopes of one day providing an opportunity for the next generation

– An advocate, standing up and speaking out for what he believes in

– A leader, donating his time to his church and community

– A son, watching his father and asking for advice along the way

– A father, showing his sons his passion for farming and the work ethic needed to make it in this industry

– A husband, providing for his family

– An agronomist, determining the seed variety best fit for the soil and region

– An environmentalist, protecting the ground and world around him while caring for the land they farm

– An engineer, using the tools and resources in his truck or tractor cab to craft a fix or render a solution to the problem

– An optimist, knowing the sun will come up and God will provide

In any given day, my husband is handling one if not all of these responsibilities. It’s all part of being a 21st century farmer. Farming is a way of life and farmer is a title bestowed only those determined and resilient enough to endure the hard times, long days and imperfect options.

 

 

 

The demise of the grocery store: removing another link between consumer and farmer

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During our weekly shopping trip to our local Dillons Grocery Store, my youngest son, Owen, gives the bunch of bananas he helped select a kiss. I shop for our family’s groceries weekly and try to take at least one, if not both, of my sons to the store to educate them on food choices.

Jeff Bezos and his multi-billion-dollar company, Amazon, made news again this week when he announced the purchase of Whole Foods, an upscale grocery store chain that specializes in organic, natural selections.

Amazon has spent nearly two decades perfecting the mail-order business, allowing people, like myself, to bypass local retailers, traffic and the check-out line by simply ordering the product on my Amazon mobile app. Experts estimate nearly half of all American households use Amazon on a regular basis.

For those Americans who value convenience, Amazon’s entrance into the food world should be a welcome move. Now the retailer that specializes in delivering socks, diapers and books will be able to ship pasta sauce, dinner rolls and juicy red apples right to our front door.

As a mother of two ornery and energetic little boys, nothing makes me happier than to discover ways to make my everyday routine, errands and shopping trips easier. But as a farm wife, Amazon’s announcement is heartbreaking.

I must back up and note that Amazon is not the first business to disrupt the traditional grocery store model. A handful of companies have begun offering meal delivery services, essentially eliminating the need to visit the store or do the prep work for meals – food arrives in a box already sliced, diced and measured. And large grocery store chains have also made it possible to still purchase groceries locally but eliminate the need to step into the store with online ordering and curb-side pick up. All of these services are offered in the name of convenience, but they only serve to further remove the consumer from the farm.

While there is no substitute for seeing the crops in the ground and the animals at pasture, only seeing food in pieces or piles does nothing to help families connect fields to corn or orchards to applies. If children grow up not knowing what a papaya looks like in its original form – on the tree – then how do we expect them to know what a GMO food is and why need to use crop technology to avoid pest infections and disease?

To fully understand the need for crop technology, herbicides and pesticides, people must understand how food is grown. A recent poll found that 7 percent of U.S. adults believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Americans have basically become agriculture ignorant and taking the grocery store out of a family’s weekly routines means food now comes from the same brown box as shoes, coffee makers and hairspray. It has no originals, no life cycle and no environment.

The Economic Impact of the Grocery Store

Grocery stores do more than provide access to food. In my home state of Kansas, grocery stores are economic drivers and corner store of small, rural communities. Kansas State University estimates that each rural grocery store in Kansas has an average economic impact of a half-million dollars. Nationally independent grocery stores contribute a combined estimated $30 million in both salaries and taxes. Remove grocery stores from communities and you lose food access, jobs and financial contributions.

As an agriculture advocate, the grocery has served as a meeting ground of sorts, a place that we, as farmers and ranchers, can access consumers, talk about products and their and explain all we do to care for the animals and the land. As more grocery stores close their doors or consumers simply avoid physical locations all together those meeting places become fewer and fewer. Schools are devoting less hours to nutritional lessons and plant science courses and restaurants are creating their own – often false and misleading – narratives on how food is grown and raised.

I know the grocery store is not the most convenient or exciting item on the weekly to-do list, but it’s a vital component to connecting consumers and farmers while educating the public on what our food really looks like. Without a baseline of understanding or familiarity with our food system, consumers are at risk of completely removing themselves from the production and distribution process and taking yet another step away from the farms and ranches and produce the goods now arriving at their front door.

The Freedom to Chose 

On this 4th of July weekend, Americans celebrate their freedoms. Freedom from the oppressive rule, freedom from taxation without representation and freedom from laws that limit personal rights and the ability to pursue individual passions. 

But as this country celebrates life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it also flirts with the idea of limiting the freedom of people to eat how and what they like. A certain segment of the population doesn’t believe in personal dietary choices and instead wants to severely limit how our food is raised and what we consume. These people do not want genetically modified crops grown, herbicides applied to kill invasive weeds or new machinery and tools utilized to better track water, pesticides and crop nutrient applications. These activists believe our country is better off producing food like we did before our independence from England, before we had more than 6 billion mouths of feed and before we realized the life-saving benefits of GMOs and modern farming practices. 

The beauty of life in America is the freedom to do and be what you what. But when people force their believes on others, they are impeding on others’ freedom to choose. Removing technology from our food system and the agriculture industry removes choices and opportunities for consumers both locally and around the globe. Walk into any grocery store and you have the the ability to chose beef or beets, organic or conventional and locally raised or grown halfway around the world, all because of a modernized and diverse agriculture industry. 

America is the most food-secure country in the world and we, as consumers, have the ability to enjoy what we like, when we like. Consumers must fight to keep those choices available and allow farmers to use the practices and technologies they know are best for their farms.

On this holiday weekend, we should celebrate the hard working men and women who made our BBQs, beers and pasta salads possible. We must continue to fight to retain our food security, product diversity and freedom to chose how and what we eat. Happy 4th of July all!