Recently I spoke at a Kansas Nutrition Council event as a rancher on a panel of agriculturists. I enjoyed visiting with nutrition specialists about what happens on a cattle ranch in Kansas. I had a few minutes to address a specific topic: how ranchers improve the quality of life in our communities. Then we took questions that had been pre-submitted and questions from the floor.
I was very impressed with the quality of questions and level of understanding these ladies already possessed of Kansas farms and ranches. One question really got me riled up, though, and ran through my mind for the entire two hour drive home and the rest of the evening. The gal sat in the front row (just for the record, I was never a front row student and worry about those people who do sit there willingly) and raised her hand during the discussion of another question and asked, "how can we help small farms survive? I know it is all about money." (her question is paraphrased as I was unable to write it down at the time.) On the surface this is a valid question, but as I began to answer it, I realized it is actually fairly hairy! I will begin to express my thoughts on this subject in this post and continue it in another.
First of all, I want you to know that I greatly admire and respect small farmers for their ingenuity and creative marketing, as well as their dedication to their way of life. More often than not, a small farmer or rancher has created a niche market in order to maximize their income potential.
Products from small farmers and ranchers are often sold at a premium price. Not everyone can afford to pay the extra price for organic corn on the cob at a farmers market. In the past 30 years, our population has doubled, and the number of farmers and ranchers has been cut in half. The amount of land to produce food has decreased! We are not making new land...we must be able to feed a growing population with a finite amount of resources.
Studies show that today in Kansas, that one in eight children go to bed hungry. Food insecurity is a very real problem for far too many families in America--it means a family has an income above the poverty line, but from time to time has trouble being able to purchase food to feed their family.
Going back to old fashioned farming and ranching methods are not the answer. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack said in a speech, if we were to return to the farming methods of 1955, we would need more than 165 million more acres of land to almost equal the production of today. That is a land mass the size of the state of Texas!
The heart of the discussion must center on feeding our people. Once again, I give praise to the different niche markets: organic, natural, grass-finished, and many more. But in order to promote their market, some of them have resorted to disparaging the traditional farmers and ranchers. I am a traditional rancher. My beef is sold in grocery stores and restaurants. Traditional farmers and ranchers are doing a great job of raising our food.
Coming from a small farm or ranch does not make food safer or healthier. Studies show that traditionally raised food is safe, nutritious and delicious. It is a choice to be able to purchase a specialized product. If you are willing to spend more money, you can choose from a variety of products. But many people in our hometowns do not have the money to choose a niche product. My frustration is that in order to market their own product, some farmers and ranchers are running down my traditionally raised product. That is poor marketing as it eventually will cause the public to question the safety of their niche product as well.
If you follow my blog, you know that I do everything I can to ensure a safe, high quality product. I may have enough cows to qualify as a "factory farm" but we are family owned and operated by family! The bulk of ranchers in my area are just like me! We do a great job of providing a nutritious beef meal to millions of people.
So to answer the question of how to support our small farms, I tell you this question has more to do with the amount of hours and physical labor required than the amount of money earned.
I do realize that this has not answered the question about keeping small farmers viable. In an upcoming blog post I will express my thoughts on the physical demands of farming and ranching and how that may be an obstacle to small farmers and ranchers.