Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ag Video Thursday: Polk County, North Carolina

Kacy, one of the authors on this blog, works with the Polk County Agricultural Development Office in Mill Spring, North Carolina. Polk County is south of Asheville and Hendersonville, just up from the South Carolina border and includes the towns of Saluda, Columbus, and Tryon.

Eric and Lynn Turner have an HD Media company based in the same building as Kacy, an old being-renovated-at-the-moment brick school building with a lot of potential. In that building, a community is forming that includes Soil and Water, ag development people, artists, and farm marketers.

Last year, the Turners produced this lovely "Meet Your Farmer" video, with the simple intent to promote agriculture there in Polk County. The music comes from Tim McMorris, a talented and uplifting songwriter.  It just makes you feel good to be (or want to be) a farmer on any scale!  Enjoy.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Galatia, Illinois: Randy Anderson

You know, we ARE trying to be stewards of the land.  I look at it like this.  I look at the land and it's almost like a vehicle.  Okay, if you take this vehicle out here and you drive it back and forth to town just as hard as you can drive it, every trip you go, there's not going to be very many trips left in that vehicle.

In Benton, Illinois, on a hot day, we stopped at the local library to do some research and cool down.  We chatted with the librarian about our project, told her of our search for farmers, and she vanished for a few minutes.  When she emerged she had a sticky note with Randy Anderson's number and a smiley face on it.

Currently, Randy is recuperating from an injury that has his arm immobilized in a sling.  Two young boys played on the floor of his home, playing with John Deer tractor toys.  Their house is set on the same farm that Randy grew up on, amongst long Illinois crops, with typical grain storage bins in the driveway.   He farms about 3,000 acres of corn, soybeans, and winter wheat.  In this interview, he speaks of Roundup Ready crops and Bt corn.  These both refer to genetically engineered crops, a hot topic in agriculture.  

I'm part of the system and I'm part of the victim.  All of my soybeans are Roundup Ready.  Yeah, it's nice and easy to do.  The thing is, trying to grow traditional soybeans, there's not enough seed companies out there, and the majority of the companies are not concentrating any of their new development bringing any of the new traits, new genetics to the forefront as a traditional seed.  Meaning increased yield.  They put everything into this here other seed that's already got all the traits to it and then they send it out's kind of like walking onto a car lot and you got this model here to choose from but every model has got the same stuff on it except each one of them's a different color.  And then you go over to these other models and they don't got nothing.   They got stick shifts and no air conditioning.  That there's kind of like that traditional seed.

Randy seemed more skeptical than many of the farmers we spoke with, first suspecting us of having an "environmental" bent to our project.  We assured him that we didn't, and he started talking; nearly 20 minutes went by before we even asked our first full question. 

 A lot of people has a view that, you know, the farmer's out here and we're destroying the environment and we don't really care about what's going on.
Just seems like things is just not always as good as what they used to be.  I mean, there's so many things that I don't quite agree with anymore...I feel I produce as good a product or anything that I can out here on the farm, but by the time it gets to the consumer it's been messed with; I feel somewhat inferior.

I recommend reading this full interview; from a commodity farmer's perspective he speaks of politics, genetic engineering, pesticide use, and family history. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thursday is Ag Video Day! The Plow That Broke the Plains, a 1937 propaganda film about the dust bowl.

This is a record of land...of soil rather than people--a story of the Great Plains; the 400,000,000 acres of wind-swept grasslands that spread up from the Texas panhandle to Canada...a high, treeless continent, without rivers, without streams...A country of high winds, and sun...and of little rain...

In 1937, this film was released by the Resettlement Administration, and generally wags a finger at American farmers and farm policy.  As a contemporary film to the dust bowl, the Great Depression, and the New Deal, it provides a fascinating bit of insight (and remarkable footage) into that era of agriculture.

The dust bowl changed the face of the country; I often wonder...if all of those families hadn't been forced to tie their chairs to their Fords and abandon their many of their descendants would still be there in the Midwest?  Would L.A. have been smaller, and Wichita become a more major city?

At one time, during the homestead days, much of the Plains were divided into 40- or 80-acre parcels.  Servicemen were offered many of them after WWI.  But when most of them wandered away, those who stayed found thousands of acres available again, and those titles became was natural that 80-acre farm families suddenly grew to 500-acre farm families.

The next generation, many children went to WWII.  If they returned, they had more options to move to cities, to go to college.  Again, was it not natural for them to relocate, leaving their parents to sell off their farm eventually?  Suddenly, a 500-acre farmer had more land available as his neighbors retired, and became a 1,000-acre farmer.  As of 2007, the average South Dakota farm size was 1,401 acres (and the vast majority are still family operations, contrary to popular belief).  This continues, and, amongst the popular small-farm and local-foods movements happening now, I wonder if there will ever be a movement to resettle the plains.

I have to wonder.  In the meantime, enjoy this 1937 film about how the grasslands turned to dust, how "Wheat will win the war!", and why so many families headed to California in the '30's as their plow was covered over.  It's 30 minutes long; make yourself comfortable and have a snack.  And think about where that snack came from.                    --Trav--

Saturday, February 12, 2011

LeRoy, Kansas: Lyle Fischer, LeRoy Coop Association.

I lived here all my life.  My dad worked in construction and farmed a little bit, but he never made a real livelihood out of farming. Had cattle and some hogs...raised seven kids.  Took a lot of food to feed seven kids.  I went on to school for four years and got my bachelors degree in business administration; had a buddy that was going to go to Cargill to work, and I said, "yeah, that wouldn't be so bad, working in a farm-type atmosphere."
Over in Burlington, Kansas, we drove down one of the extremely wide roads that made up the main street.  We were looking for farmer contacts, and we spotted the local Farm Bureau service office.  Popping our heads in, we were greeted by a couple of wonderful folks, all smiles and handshakes.  One of them was Larry Gleue the local agent.

Larry listened to our story, told a few of his own (like the one about the farmer who has had a suspicious number of insurance claims for lightning-struck cows, or the one about Larry's aging father who refuses to be told that he's too old to farm...Larry won't let him on the tractor anymore), and then pulled out his cell phone to start calling farmers for us.

One of the contacts that he gave us was Lyle Fischer, who manages the LeRoy Co-op Association, a nearby grain elevator and agronomy service.  Two days later, after enjoying the Coffey County Fair and a parade, we drove a few miles out to LeRoy to call on Lyle.
...Went to work here in 1976 as the assistant manager, getting the feed, the seed, all the supplies, worked the counter.  We started spraying row crops back in '75, so we bought a sprayer pickup a couple of years later and I drove that in the summertime for awhile.  Got to where that was taking too much time and I wasn't getting my stuff done in the office, so I quit doing that.  2001 I took over as general manager...nine years went by, and it doesn't seem like nine years!  I don't know, I really don't have a good story to tell.  It's just work!

A cooperative is member-owned.  In 1960, fifty years ago, the farmers wanted something better for them.  Competition-wise, they wasn't getting a fair shake in the market.  So they decided to start a cooperative and own it themselves.  From that it's grown to the membership we have now.  But a co-op is member-ownership; you earn your membership by doing business there, or you can buy membership.  Any money that's made at the end of the year is shared back to the people that have done business that year.  So all the assets, the income, is returned back to the members, based on their annual purchases, unlike an independent elevator or grain business, where it goes in their own pocket.  
We were sitting down with Lyle on his porch with an unobstructed view of his beautiful backyard and grain bins.  He took us on a bit of an economic overview of the past few decades in farming; in the 70's and 80's when he was just starting out in the business the real issue was farmer debt and high interest. Interest on loans made to farmers was as high as 18% and many farmers were not able to keep afloat during those years.

1980 was a tough year.  It was a dry year.  Very, very dry.  That hurt too, back with the interest and the dry year, people didn't raise a crop.  And not too many people had crop insurance then. 

In the 90's, the price for commodity crops were at rock bottom, which has changed today.  While commodity crops command a better price these days, the catch for many farmers currently is the high price of inputs. Any natural or synthetic additions a farmer has to apply to the soil or crop is usually very expensive.
Lyle also has seen a lot of farmers working hard to reduce their pollution from chemicals and runoff. The government requirements are getting tighter and tighter and in this area nitrogen has been found in drinking water and phosphate in the lakes. Lyle believes that the government will continue to demand better and cleaner systems, and he has seen that most farmers are willing to comply with requests even before they are requirements. A lot of farmers in this area have lined their streams with filter strips which prevents runoff to some degree.
We asked him about the increasing size of these Midwest crop farms...are they getting bigger because they want to or because they have to to stay afloat?

I would say that most of them are getting bigger because they have to.  Now, there's a few, I'm sure, that are getting bigger because of pride.  You know, "I want to be bigger than the other guy."  I could tell you a few of those.  Most of them, I'd say, are getting bigger because they see the need to farm more acres to make their machinery pay.  To me, I can't understand how they can put a quarter million dollars into a combine or $200,000 into a planter, and plant two or three thousand acres and make it work.  I guess they have to.  I spend $200,000 for a sprayer, but I can spray 30, 40,000 acres, generate a lot more income.  Not necessarily profit, but a lot more income, cash flow, out of that machine.  But when you run a quarter million dollar combine over 2,000 acres, I don't know, that's a lot of money per acre.

We also asked him about the negative press that chemicals often get in popular press, and how he feels about it:

I think the word "chemical" sounds like a hazardous material.  Maybe the word "chemicals" is the wrong word to use.  "Herbicide" is a better terminology to use.  Herbicide is used by our customers to control weeds.  Then there's pesticides.  Pesticides are more for pest control, insects. do you tell the consumer that these chemicals are not hazardous to the food?

Herbicides are safe!  They're out there to control weeds.  The plant that grows, like the corn or soybean, is tolerant to those herbicides, so it doesn't bother that grain that's growing.  I don't know.

I don't know if the consumer actually knows what it takes to raise a crop, to make the bread on his table and the eggs in his frying pan, I don't know if they do or not.  Sometimes you wonder.  I me, the naturalist or whoever that thinks that we can feed the world on the way it was 50 years ago, is going to go hungry.  We can't feed the world on 50-bushel {per acre} corn, 20-bushel beans.  We have to have genetics, we have to have fertilizer, we have to have herbicides...we have to have those traits in these crops to make higher yields. 

The GMO is the traits that they put in the plant so that the plant is resistant to the corn borer.  Well, think about that.  The corn borer, the corn root worm is being controlled genetically in the plant instead of using a pesticide.  So the use of a true pesticide, the organophosphates that we used to use to control corn root worms, we don't use them anymore.  We don't have to!  Because the plant itself has got the gene in there to control that pest.

So the pesticide use has gone down bunches in our country, in corn and soybean country.  Because we don't use them anymore! 

To society I think that farmers offer a lot.  They're independently owned.  They're their own boss.  I'm not sure how to answer that, except that farmers are just a huge part of this society, in these communities.  Now Kansas City or Wichita, you know, they get overlooked.  What do you think?

I think there's a lot of people that wish they could be more involved in raising their own food, having their flower gardens...farming to me is just a livelihood.  I don't know how anybody could beat it, to be a farmer.  You're your own boss, you're out there working with your animals, you know nobody's telling you what to do everyday!  The young people that don't ever experience those thoughts even, or the joy of it, being out in the country, they're missing a lot.

Read the full interview here, and learn about the complex grain marketing system, government regulations, and a year in the life of a grain elevator. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

National Ag Day promotional video.

Hello folks!  Today I want to depart from the interviews for just a moment and show a video.  It's like those wonderful days in school, when the teacher didn't get the lesson plan together in time and you get to just watch.  I encourage you to take 5 minutes to watch this one, promoting National Ag Day, in March, on the first day of spring.  For two reasons:

1) I like thinking that spring is almost here.  My seed catalogs have all arrived, and I'm eagerly waiting for the ground to thaw;

2) The video does a nice job providing images and quotes that, I believe, reflect the diversity of agriculturalists in this country.  The attitude that I've generally felt amongst farmers and ranchers is not one of secrecy, but one of transparency.  It's increasingly obvious that consumers want to know details about their food production.  Supermarkets are all starting to put up signs featuring their growers, and government funding is coming down the line for increased food education in schools.

I would love to hear your comments, and your arguments.  Yes, there are a number of discrepancies in the industry, from labeling issues to complex safety standards.  It's a complex system, and I hope to be a part of the discussion.

Are there people whose opinions or views you'd like to hear?  We will do our best to seek them out and interview them, so ask your questions.  Enjoy the video!


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Richvale, California: Dennis Lindberg, 86. Rice farmer.

Well, I was born here in 1924.  On July 23rd, 1924.  When I was a senior in high school I grew my first rice crop as an FFA project.  I bypassed college and all and went to the School of Hard Knocks or whatever you want to call it.  

This year I planted my 69th consecutive rice crop.  Somebody asked me when I hit 50, "well aren't you gonna retire?"  And I said, "Hell no!"  I've been very fortunate in those years.
 In the spirit of welcoming the unexpected, let us leave the midwest in the sweltering last days of July and fast forward through a few states to an interview that took place in Richvale, California.

Richvale is nestled north of the fertile fruit and vegetable valleys that supply many of us non-Californians with carrots and lettuce in the winter months.  The first farmers to inhabit Richvale tried to persuade wheat to grow here, but the climate and terrain were unsuitable for that crop.  It wasn't until Dennis Lindberg's father started farming the land around 1911 that he and his peers realized this land was perfect for growing rice.
I have a great respect for my father and other people who settled this community in the years beginning '11, '12, and '13.  We just celebrated our 100th anniversary of the founding of Richvale.  They came here to what was primarily wheat land.  And not very good wheat land at that.  There was some farms established that'd been abandoned.  Well, then a group out of the San Joaqine Valley Realty Firm came up here and formed what the called the Richvale Land Colony and they started promoting, selling this land.

This was as early as '09 and '10, if you will.   Rice was just in its infancy in California at that time.  The first rice was grown in probably '09 or '10 on an experimental basis down and out west of Gridley from what I understand.  Then, of course, as things went on, by 1915 the land developers were gone.  They grabbed their money and left, if you will.  

So it was left to our founders to get an irrigation system.  It didn't have proper drainage; there were a few wheat farmers out here, and when they were farming rice it would leak out onto their wheat, and of course they didn't like that.  And there were no improved roads.  So our founders went through a living Hell, if you will, till they got something established and founded this [BUCRA].  This facility was founded in 1915.  My father was one of the founding members and on the original board of directors.

So, I feel a great debt of gratitude in those of us of second and third generation to our forebearers, forefathers, who founded this community and provided a place for us to do something with our lives.
 Dennis, or "Denny", as he is known in his community, exudes excitement, an abundance of civic pride, and a passion for growing rice.  As a hobby he also grows watermelons of generous proportions.  He and his son, Gary Lindberg, farm about 400 acres of rice in this region of around 500,000 acres.  We were connected to him, for all intents and purposes the local historian, by Jim Morris at the California Rice Commission.

The Butte County Rice Growers Association (BUCRA) building where we met Dennis also contained evidence of his artistic abilities; the front waiting area had one of his hand-fashioned metal duck sculptures featured.  He creates these metal ducks with different themes (the Fire Department Duck and the Evangelist Duck, for example) and sells them as fundraisers for the town of Richvale.

It's a city without a real city government, if you will.  They call me kind of the ipso facto mayor around here.  I don't live here anymore; my son lives on the farm.  We live over in Thermalito.

Richvale had been a boom town that could have been on its way to busting in the early 1900's, but its citizens wouldn't hear of it.  When the economy started tanking back then, and the townsfolk were abandoned by the developers, this hamlet rolled up its collective sleeves and started planting rice and helping each other get through.  There is a definite Bedford Falls feel here and Dennis could easily play the role of George Bailey, town enthusiast and champion.  The fire department, a local cafe, and schools are operated and maintained in a large part through donations and volunteer power from the community.  Dennis describes his town as a "self-help community."
When asked what he'd like to see change in agriculture, he spoke, among other things, of the need to remind people that this rural Californian community exists out here, producing an incredibly important food crop.  He references Lundberg Rice, a neighbor who specialized in organic growing (no relation, by the way, between the Lindbergs and the Lundbergs.  Both families were early settlers here):

Public acceptance that we're out here.  And we want to remain here!  We got to keep this commerce going.  You know, out at Lundbergs, there's 250 employees in that facility over there.  Right here at Butte County we must have 50!  We got an irrigation district with 12 employees, we got a drainage district with 4 or 5, we got a gotta keep those things going.  And rice is what's doing that in this case.  I want to see that continue.

Like some of the other farmers we've talked to, Dennis relates how much technology and equipment has been improved over the last decades.  He is working on his 69th rice crop this year and he grows a short-statured variety.

When the Lindbergs got their first harvester it could harvest in a day what a brand new harvester could do in an hour today.  Denny used to let his fields lay fallow every other year but demand has become so great for rice that he plants every year now.  Water rights are an issue we heard many farmers express concern about, but Richvale has impenetrable water rights that keeps the ever growing population of southern California off their backs.
I saw this industry...I consider it a privilege...I'm 86 years old by the way...I got to see horses working in the field as a kid.  I've seen this industry come from the horses and the hundred-pound sacks to stationary harvesters.  I even pulled the bundle wagons if you know what they are.  They put the rice in shocks about so big around, and you went around with a bundle wagon, pull it with a tractor.  When I was 13 years old, pulling that bundle wagon out and over to the harvester, where you unhooked and went and got another bundle wagon.

In those days they hired transient workers, hobos if you will.  They were coming out of Oregon and Washington up there in the grain harvest.  They'd hit here about October.  Well, come Saturday night or if it rained, you paid 'em off you didn't always see 'em again!  {laughs}  So my dad had to get me out there one bad winter in 1937 when I was 13.  So I got exposed to some of that and I begged to continue.  I though, "boy, this is cool, man!"  Not that I didn't enjoy school.  I was a good student; I was a straight A student my first two years, but then I got more interested in farming than I did school.

Lundberg Rice, also based in Richvale, is the leading grower of organic rice in the country; Dennis mentions that they "put this town on the world map".

Dennis estimated that 60% of the rice grown here is sold domestically, and 40% is exported.
Like most farming communities, time is made and set aside for recreation, especially if it involves agriculture.  Before we hit the road, Dennis drove us out to his rice paddies and just beyond, where he has his watermelon patch.  Every year he grows 4 or 5 gargantuan melons to be used in a weight-guessing competition; whoever is closest to the actual weight takes the melon home.  Travis and I were sworn to secrecy (melons have been stolen in the past) about the location of the patch, and Dennis took us to a seemingly overgrown portion of his field.  After furtively glancing around to make sure no one was watching, he surreptitiously bent down and pulled back a layer of grass to expose the promising green-striped shell of a watermelon already the size of a mini-refrigerator.  As quickly as it had been uncovered it was inconspicuously tucked back into its hay bedding and Dennis straightened up and had us renew our vows to keep mum about the location of the watermelon.
As a parting gift he gave us two lesser melons and the sparkling wisdom of a man who has seen his fair share of harvests- "when you cut 'em open they should go 'snick!'- that's how you know you've got a good one!"  

A few weeks ago, Dennis wrote to us again to update us on the aforementioned watermelon.  Below is the 90 pound monster.  Dennis' son, Gary (right) and Donald Rystrom (left) each guessed within a pound of that.
Read the full interview after the jump, including stories of growing up in rice country and facts and opinions about the industry...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Update: Harry Young, one of our interviewees passed away this week.

 Harry Young, one of the farmers interviewed for this project, passed away this week in Kentucky.  Our previous write-up of the interview is here.

Harry was a fascinating fellow, 83 years old, with a unique situation.  He has been fighting to get his land and honor back after he was forced off of his lifelong farm and it was auctioned off.  Much of our discussion was about the hardship of being a small farmer, his frustration that this could happen over what he says is a financial misunderstanding, and about the racism that he felt in the area.

An author and friend of his, Monica Davis, provided the following readings associated with his life and struggles.  It's worth a read, especially for people such as myself who were raised in a very different region:

 82-year-old Black farmer arrested, charged with making terrorist threats, May 17, 2009.

Black farmer files lawsuit to regain farm with $750000000 in coal deposits.

Land, Legacy and Lynching: Building the Future in Black America, a book by Monica Davis.

And, a summary of our visit with Harry for the Stewards Project.