Sunday, December 26, 2010

Berger, Missouri: Wayne and Joy Carl

In rural Missouri, The Carls were sitting on Joy's John Deere mule when we approached them. Joy Carl is 79 and Wayne's uncle.  Wayne is Joy's right hand man on the farm. Joy showed us pictures of the county geography from an old atlas that was falling apart in his hands; he pointed out his farm and how the flooding and droughts over the years have changed the topography. In Missouri people often talk about "The Bottomlands" as an ideal area to farm, though much of it has been developed into towns and lots. 

He has also seen a lot of his contemporaries drop out of farming due to floods and development, but Joy can't think of anything they'd rather be doing than farming. One thing Joy is sensitive about is the negative media attention farmers have been receiving lately. There are a few bad apples out there, but according to these men it is rare to find a farmer who would mistreat his or her animals. Joy thinks that most farmers treat their livestock with more consideration than they'd treat some people with, but that's not what society at large sees.

Berger is a town that is no longer a town; Joy reflected on the days of his youth when it has all the amenities...banks, stores, cafes...but as we left and asked which direction to town, they replied, "that way...but you won't notice."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Union, Missouri: Richard Schmidt

Coming into St. Louis was a huge change from rural Illinois; luckily we had a place to stay with Carrie, my mother's best friend in the world. She offered us refuge from the unrelenting heat of July in the city.  She also offered us pizza and the name of a farmer friend of hers, Richard Schmidt.

Richard and family are about 15 miles outside of St. Louis in a wealthy looking subdivision. He raises and sells beef now, but got started with food in a culinary setting. Richard is a former chef and restaurant owner who wanted to move away from urbanity in St. Louis. He found the countryside of Union and decided to try his hand at raising "good beef." That is, beef that doesn't take antibiotics, that graze for most of their food and eat grain that is grown locally.

Richard lights up with pride when he speaks about his cows, and he told us about the first cow he raised through the whole process of birth to slaughter to food. Right now Richard has seven cows, and he brought us to the barn to meet a few of them. They turned out to be shy and skittish, but Richard assured us that they get very used to him and are sweet and friendly. This business venture has proved profitable for Richard; he reports that in the 3 years he's been selling beef the public has been very willing to pay a higher price for natural beef. There is a desire to age gracefully, and having a new son keeps Richard conscious of his and his childs health.

He sent us on our way with some hardy beef jerky.  We had no cooler with us and it was 100 degrees, so we devoured it quickly to the delight of our tongues and the confusion of our mostly vegetable-filled stomachs.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Freeburg, Illinois: Tom and Pat Range, Braeutigam Orchards

Just as we were about to cross the state line from Illinois into Missouri we hit upon a gem for our project and our taste buds: Braeutigam Orchards run by Tom and Pat Range.  We really had intended to simply pick up some fruit, but as soon as we began chatting, Pat took us over to a wall covered in old family photos.  The stories started coming, so we sat at a picnic table and collected them.

They are the 6th generation on this land and obviously a holdout; the highway runs adjacent to their property and from atop their hill you can look down at the encroaching subdivisions. As we pulled up to the market at the orchard, we looked across the parking lot at a nanny goat with her babies, one of which was standing on top of her. These are the Range's fainting goats, on loan from a neighbor. The goats are a part of the agritourism that draw crowds to the orchard to pick their own peaches, blueberries and thornless blackberries. When fainting goats are startled their muscles involuntarily contract and they topple over like statues.

This orchard was started when Pat's ancestors were struggling with taking their ripe peaches to the markets and getting paid next to nothing for them. Someone had the idea of selling the peaches right from the farm, and that's what happened. The farm has a big open air structure with baskets of peaches, berries, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins and freezers with local milk and cheese and home processed jams and jellies. There are picnic tables outside and after you pick your peaches you can buy cider slushies made from the farms apples and cool off in the shade before heading home. The Ranges have worked hard to make this orchard a destination as there are other, bigger orchards in the area that attract crowds as well. Far from resenting the urban sprawl all around them they have marketed in those neighborhoods. Tom will drive down through the streets with his tractor picking up folks who want to come pick pumpkins in the fall. After all, as Tom points out, who better to bring into the farm than those who have yards planted with grass and may not have ever climbed in an apple tree.

While we are talking at one of the picnic tables a couple drives up who would like to pick some peaches. Tom leads us out to the orchard where the trees are all heavy laden with huge golden and red globes. While we look for a good place to take their portrait he picks two New Haven peaches and cuts them up with his pocket knife for us to try.  There is a certain deftness with which an orchardist wields a pocketknife, born of many years leading pickers down the aisles of trees.

The peaches have a buttery sweetness and they melt in our mouths. As we head back to the table Tom picks us two more of a different variety and gives us strict instructions as to how to eat these peaches. They are Madisons, and to really get everything out of them you have to pull off the skin, put a slice on the roof of your mouth and crush it with your tongue so you can drink the peach; I can see why Tom speaks so reverently of the experience after trying a Madison this way.

Tom and Pat have kids and grandkids who already help on the farm, and will continue to run it after the elder Ranges retire. The counter is worked by high school students from the FFA agriculture classes that Tom teaches at the public school. When asked about the future of agriculture in America, the Ranges are confident that it will continue to be important as we can't survive without it. They have also seen a jump in people who care about farming even if they have no farming in their background.

As with many interviews, the topic of organics and pesticides comes up, not instigated by us.  Many farmers, especially orchardists feel the need to be defensive about their practices due to heavy media scrutiny.  The Ranges avoid overusing chemicals, but sometimes they simply must spray; but they are intelligent and selective about their usage.  Pat pointed at Tom and said, "Here you have a man who sprays...but we eat the fruit."  I recalled Reggie Rowell in Tennessee, who articulated the issue of customers wanting organic apples, but also apples without spots, damage, or scars.

Before we take off for Missouri Tom tells us that in order for each person in this country to eat 5 servings of fruit and vegetables every day farmers would have to plant 13 million more acres of produce. As the health of many Americans deteriorates and diet is more and more linked to disease prevention it seems natural that people will put down processed food and pick up an apple. Or a delicious, buttery peach.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Red Bud, Illinois: John Howell, Gateway FS Inc.

The rain was pouring down and we were driving around with no interviews scheduled for the day but keeping our eyes open for the spontaneous opportunity. It came in the form of John Howell, a farm consultant at Gateway FS Inc., which is an agricultural chemical company that operates as a cooperative in the area. If you conjure up images of what you think a young Illinois farmer might look like you'd have some version of John Howell: very tall and broad-shouldered, with a quiet but forthright demeanor.

We dropped in just as the rain really broke, and inquired about local farmers we may be introduced to.  The secretary said, "Well we got one right here!  Hey John!  Come meet these people."  He uneasily agreed to let us interview him, occasionally shooting the secretary who had let us in dirty looks.  John  had recently graduated with an agricultural degree and helps on his family's farm besides his day job at FS.  He loves farming and also knows the reality that his family farm can only support so many people so he is grateful and happy to work the FS job in conjunction. One of the main components of his job is to have test plots that analyze the productivity of the fertilizer the company is selling.
John reports that the results are usually positive; crops are more productive and the belief is that they would be in even better shape if they there wasn't a drought happening in Illinois right now (despite the pounding rain at the moment).  He reflects on his grandfather's era, when corn production may have yielded 40-60 bushels per acre.  That volume has dramatically increased in the past century, doubling in just the past 30 years.  John tells us about some tests recently that have been breaking records and that we will see 250+ bushels per acre in the next decade or two (currently we see around 160-180 bushels/acre average).

He realizes that the common opinion of agricultural chemicals is negative in the public eye, especially in urbanized areas.  He calls himself a realist and opines that the world will not be able to feed itself with organic methods considering our population boom.  John makes the point that we either need to stop developing farms so that they can continue to meet the needs of the world (farmland preservation is a hot topic all over the country), or we need to figure out how to grow 300 bushels of corn on an acre that is only producing half that now. Which is what he's doing with his products and research
Many people are familiar with the "organic methods will not feed the world" argument.  Popular media is severely slanted against high-production farming and many Midwestern farmers seem to feel demonized and misunderstood by non-farmers.  They are, in general, experts at their trade, pulling corn or wheat or soybeans from their land every year for much of their lives.  They are keenly aware of the issues that exist around ag, and will always remind you that they do not abuse their land or overuse chemicals for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it's foolish to think that they would seek to destroy their own property, which happens to be their source of income.

As we talked to John I was reminded that farmers are divided about the reality that U.S. (and worldwide) farmland will not be able to sustain our population as it explodes. There are people like Hector Black and Jack Lazor who just want to grow a little healthy food and let the earth rest, and there are those who look into the future and fear what they see there: hungry Americans without the know-how or space to grow their own food. For those who want to prepare for the crisis they see coming, they vigorously try to protect fertile land, and they push it to grow at max capacity so that when a food shortage happens communities will not starve to death.  The jobs we do and the niches we fill are varied, and the complex system of trade and transport that has developed in this nation is complex.  That system gives Midwest farmers a responsibility to feed their own community as well as foreign breadbaskets.  They don't take that responsibility lightly.

Benton, Illinois: J. Larry Miller, Farm Bureau

Benton, Illinois has a lovely library staffed by warm and helpful folks. Upon telling the librarians about our project they consulted and came back to us with a list of farmers whom they thought would be willing and beneficial participants for an interview.

We spent a good chunk of that humid, hot day in the library.  We happened to read an article in the paper by Larry Miller, Farm Bureau agent, and contacted him for an interview as well. Larry was willing and we met him at his office the next morning.

Farm Bureau provides all sorts of services to farmers, ranging from insurance for crops to political representation regarding governmental land and farm policies (it varies state-by-state). Larry fell mostly into the latter category- he is responsible for researching and weighing in on laws that will effect how farmers in his community do business. As a farmer himself, Larry understands the issues personally as well as pragmatically. In Larry's opinion it would be best to get politicians out of control in policy making and let farmers have more control over the methods they choose to farm with. This probably sounds scary to people who don't know or trust the people who grow their food, but I believe Larry thinks this would be the best way to farm because people here are neighbors, not strangers.

Larry spoke highly of the apprenticeship programs that are becoming available as many farmers are aging without heirs to keep the farm going. The programs match younger people without the means to buy/rent a farm with older farmers who wish their farms to remain farms but have no one in line to take it over after their retirement.

Illinois farming has been particularly hit hard in this recession; the university extension budget has all but dried up and in some parts of Illinois one extension agent services 5 counties. Farm Bureau and other farm-advocate organizations have been similarly affected.  700,000 people leave Illinois every year and part of Larry's goal is to figure out ways to make farming and community here lucrative. If the farmers can't survive in Benton the prognosis for the town will be dire because as Larry said "farming is the backbone of this community."