Food cost drivers


Every time I go to the grocery store or to a restaurant, I overhear people complaining about the rising cost of food.  Prices for many items have increased in recent months.  When the gentleman standing beside you at the meat counter begins to hyperventilate over the price per pound for beef, pork, poultry or seafood, it is not only good to know first aid, but it helps to be ready to answer some of his concerns.   

It is a fact that in this country, we spend a smaller share of our income on food than Canadians, Australians or Germans.  We spend less than anyone else, anywhere in the world.

The average American spends 11 percent of his/her disposable income on food.  That includes food eaten out and at home.  In China, consumers spend nearly 30% of their disposable income on food.  In Pakistan, they spend nearly 48%.

The rising cost of energy is a major factor in the price we pay not only for groceries, but for almost everything.  Increased oil prices have driven up not only transportation costs, but the prices of fertilizer, packaging and even inks used to print those labels that we hear so much about in the news these days.

Overwhelming regulations restricting the use of herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers result in poorer crop yields.  Many consumer, when polled, will say they want farmers to use less of these inputs, but when those same consumers select produce at the market, you can bet your bottom line that they will not pick up the tomato with a dark spot from disease or pepper with a worm hole.     

With a shrinking land base, farmers need technology to increase crop yields to meet growing demand.  Because of regulation and the cost of research and development, it takes years to bring a new input to market.  Companies and eventually farmers have to invest a sizeable sum in those new and improved and more environmentally friendly products. 

With their mouths full, some consumers complain about “industrial agriculture” and large livestock confinements.  They will sign petitions and put signs in their yards to block expansion, while complaining about the cost of pork chops, eggs, and chicken breasts.

Drier, hotter weather in key agricultural areas in this country coupled with the government’s decision to cease water diversions to farmland to protect bait fish, has forced thousands of acres of once productive land to lay idle. 

How much time and money are these complainers willing to invest in raising their own food?  These people who think local produce, meat and eggs is too expensive?  It’s fun for a while to have a garden until you have to hoe weeds or rescue your green beans from Japanese Beetles.  (That’s awfully difficult without a little help from a pesticide.)  Have you priced a canner and jars recently?  Food preservation is not an inexpensive endeavor. 

Printing more money to inject into the economy is not helping, either.  It is not sustainable.

Is technology dumbing down our society?


Have you ever experienced déjà vu?  Most of us are familiar with that “I’ve been here before” sensation that is the phenomenon called déjà vu.  Unfortunately, the overwhelming sense of familiarity that came with the situation I experienced while at my favorite grocery store last week was one I would prefer hadn’t happened the first or the second time. 

I was in the check-out lane watching the young lady scanning and weighing and entering product codes into the computer that took care of all calculations.  Courtney (according to her name tag) slid the final item over the scanner, then smiled and pointed to the total amount due displayed on the monitor.

As I handed over a one hundred dollar bill to pay my $40-something grocery bill, immediately I felt the air go out of the room – or at least out of the area around this young woman, myself and the cash register. This is the moment I experienced déjà vu and the moment poor Courtney wished she would have opted for a summer job as a lifeguard or babysitter.

I watched in silence a she opened the money drawer and stared into it for a moment. And then, holding the c-note in her 17-year old hand and staring at Ben Franklin as though he was a stranger she recognized but could not quite place, she stood still for several long seconds. Slowly, the young woman lifted her head and when her eyes met mine, I recognized panic.  The panic I had seen in the eyes of other cashiers before. 

“Oh, is that bill too big? I have something smaller if you would prefer,” I offered. 

I had rescued her. The panicked expression disappeared and I witnessed total, complete relief take its place. The air came back into the space between us as I handed her a fifty and she passed my bill back across the counter.

And then, it happened. That defining moment when she realized that by opening the money drawer to retrieve change for my hundred dollar bill, she had zeroed out the total due on the monitor.

What happened next is sort of a blur to me. I remember the girl asking me, “How much was it?” I told her it was $40-something. And then she stood, holding my $50, staring into the cash drawer.

We were brought back to reality when the woman in line behind me spoke. “Look at the receipt,” she said softly to the girl whose grip on the fifty had turned her fingertips white.

The girl said aloud, “It’s $45.46.”

Relieved, I reached for my billfold, prepared to receive my change. The girl reached into the cash drawer and picked up a 5-dollar bill and then, again, she froze. Panicked again, she looked up at me and said, “I’m not good at math. The machine is supposed to tell me what to do.”

I patiently told her to put the 5-dollar bill back in the drawer and directed her to start with the change. Together we counted. Ok, I counted and pointed while she reached into the drawer to retrieve coins and bills.

After handing over my change, she smiled and chirped, “Have a nice day” as though nothing had happened.

I am afraid that something is happening. Technology is important, but when people who are being paid to make change are incapable of subtracting $45.46 from $50.00 without a machine, we have a serious problem.  Especially when it happens again, and again, and again.

Climate change and animal rights


A California congressman is trying to persuade his cohorts on the Animal Protection Caucus to participate in “Meatless Mondays” in an effort to bring attention to animal welfare issues and the role livestock production plays in climate change. “The production of meat employs a tremendously wasteful amount of resources,” Rep. Tony Cardenas wrote in a letter to caucus colleagues. “By going meat-free even one day a week, we can help conservation efforts and take one more action to help mitigate the threat of global climate change.”

If an adult in America decides to give up meat, the choice is his (or hers) to make.  When a lawmaker elected to make laws for the citizens of this country decides to use his position as a bully pulpit to further his personal mission as an animal rights advocate, it is troubling.  Perhaps it is because of the unsavory tactics used by many animal rights advocates. 

The California Democrat defines caucuses as groups formed by Representatives who share something in common, be it geography, policy interests, ethnicity, ideology or even a shared love for a particular food or drink.  Seriously? Love for a particular food or drink?  Form a club, not a caucus.  Or is that what most caucuses truly are?  Seems like a big waste of time for those who can’t seem to move the needle when it comes to little things like the economy and a disappearing middle class.

If Representative Cardenas is serious about reducing his carbon footprint and that of his fellow congressmen, perhaps he should encourage implementation of “Turn off the lights when you leave the room Tuesday” and make sure the monitors on all those energy sucking computers are turned off if no one is going to be using them for 20 minutes.

Perhaps the congressman could convince the Animal Protection Caucus to participate in “Use less air conditioning and heating Wednesday.”  They could install weather stripping and caulking around doors and windows in their office buildings.  They could turn down the thermostat and wear long underwear to work. 

Representative Cardenas could persuade his buddies to participate in “Clean your plate Thursday” to cut down on the emissions of transporting the wasted food to the garbage dump and the emissions of food decomposition, mostly in the form of greenhouse gases.   He could lead the charge to get rid of all paper napkins, plastic utensils, paper plates and Styrofoam cups on Capitol Hill.   

How many members of the Animal Protection Caucus limit travel to that in which public transportation can take them to their destination?  How many walk or bike, thus burning less fuel and releasing fewer emissions into the atmosphere?  Perhaps the congressman could lead his colleagues in that direction. 

There are many things that we all could and probably should do to limit our individual carbon footprint.  I applaud those who set good examples for the rest of us.  But don’t confuse Representative Cardenas efforts to “help conservation efforts and take one more action to help mitigate the threat of global climate change.” 

This isn’t about climate change.  It’s about animal rights.

Smell that money!


“Smell that money!”

 When I was growing up, the kids on my school bus used to repeat that statement every time we rode by Wendy Freeman’s cattle feedlot.  With windows open, we’d drink in the smell of manure and grin from ear to ear.  None of us at that point in our youth had heard the phrase, “A rising tide carries all boats” but we were all cheering for Wendy.

 This memory crossed my mind the other day as I listened to a news report about a farmer’s plan to sell his land to another farmer from out of state who plans to put in a large sow operation – a CAFO – on that property. The people in the community, including livestock and row crop farmers whose homes are within 2,000 feet of the proposed operation, are not grinning.  As a matter of fact, they are not a bit happy about it. The consensus is that they don’t want the odor of 10,000 sows that close to their homes. 

 I’m not writing about this today to take a stand on either side.  I’m disappointed that there are “sides.”  I wish the farmer from out of state would have made an effort to reach out to his new neighbors (especially those within 2,000 feet) instead of having the adjacent landowners finding out about it when they received notice of where the new facility is proposed to be placed and where the waste will be applied. 

 It is disappointing to learn how some of the local farmers began to raise a stink about the proposed farm before they knew anything at all about it. There is nothing more troubling to me than seeing farmers pitted against farmers.

 Another memory came to mind as I thought about this situation: a week spent in Lancaster County, Penn., known for its Amish population.  

Lancaster County is that state’s number one tourist destination as well as its number one livestock producer. Jim and I honeymooned in Lancaster County in 2003. We visited museums, went sightseeing, did some furniture shopping and enjoyed the local cuisine. Stepping out of a tourist-packed local shop where Jim had discovered a great dislike for the Pennsylvania Dutch treat shoofly pie, the odor of dairy, swine, equine and beef cattle manure wafted through the air along with the smell of wood smoke and tourist-car exhaust.

 Cars with New York, North and South Carolina and Massachusetts license plates filled the parking areas outside the Amish general store and across the street from the bed & breakfasts. Families carrying large painted hex signs and hand-made quilts strolled along the cobblestone street, smiling at one another, happy with their purchases.

 Although there are more than 63 CAFOs in the county, the odor of livestock production did not faze the tourists with whom we crossed paths those days we spent in the tourist hotspot that attracts more than 10 million tourists a year.  How can Lancaster County, Pennsylvania make this happen?  The farmers, business people, city and county governments, and residents decided to work together and believed the marriage of farming and tourism was a good union economically, for the community.

 Back in the Midwest, I have yet to hear one person talk about the positive impact the 25 jobs created by the proposed sow operation will have on the community.  No one seems to care if the farm will smell like money.  They just know that it will smell. 


Campaign promises come with a cost


My strawberries have been delectable this season!  Several years ago, Jim built a small raised bed for me to grow just enough strawberries for us to enjoy fresh during the season.  If I need enough to make jam, I purchase from another farmer.  With strawberry shortcake on the menu this week-end, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some ice cream and cream to whip.  Standing in the freezer aisle at Hy-Vee, looking at all those brightly colored cartons of dairy delightfulness reminded me of a story I’ve shared in the past.

 This story, told by a 7th grade teacher, is about an election for class president.  Candidates were nominated by class members.  The first candidate had specific ideas about how to make the class a better place and promised to do his very best.  The second candidate had a more concise speech.  She said, “If you vote for me, I will give you ice cream.” A discussion followed.  How did she plan to pay for the ice cream?  She wasn’t sure.  Would her parents buy it or would the class pay for it?  She didn’t know.  The class really didn’t care.  They wanted ice cream.  She won.

As primary elections continue across the country and the nation prepares for general elections on Tuesday, November 4, it is my hope that we all consider not only the benefit, but the cost of “free ice cream.”

 Sadly, many Americans are like those students, choosing elected officials at the county, state and national level based upon campaign promises of ice cream for everyone. 

 The American Dream is a state of mind, not ownership of property.  My yardstick for measuring success differs greatly from that of my friends who live and work in Chicago or Indianapolis or Springfield.  You cannot mass produce or divide equally among the people something as awesome as an individual’s hope and dreams.  Our forefathers laid out a plan to give us opportunity.  It is through our own hard work and planning and hours of commitment that we are able to achieve the American dream. 

 In November, citizens of this country will have the opportunity to let their voices be heard.  All 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 33 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be contested.  Nearly 40 state and territorial governorships, 46 state legislatures, and many state and local offices are also up for election in 2014. 

 It is my hope that Americans forget the “free” government ice cream because the cost is much more than you and me and generations to come can afford to pay.  Give us the freedom to be prosperous in agriculture and we will grow the ingredients and make the ice cream ourselves.

 We’ll enjoy some ice cream for ourselves and sell some and pay taxes on it and make a profit on it and invest that money in our rural communities and in our state and we’ll build schools and infrastructure and put more money in the collection plate at church on Sunday.

 Unfortunately, some people simply want the free ice cream.

Tell the truth about food


While delivering branded beef to a health food store last week, a shopper asked me if we feed GMOs to our cattle. I think my answer came as a surprise to several people standing within eavesdropping distance.

“Yes. As a matter of fact we do.”

I looked her straight in the eyes and told her that in addition to high-quality forage and pasture, prior to harvest, our cattle are fed a half-corn, half-oat mix purchased from a local grain elevator. We supplement the steers’ diet with an all- natural source of protein.

The store owner, with an expression of sadness, shook her head and added disappointedly, “It is very hard to find any grain that is not genetically modified.”

The customer is always right, and in this case, my customer was the store owner. I have learned to tread lightly in these situations. I respect the store owner but I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to educate those listening.

Fortunately, the store owner’s statement is indeed a fact, so I responded, “You know, (store owner’s name) is right, it is difficult to find non-GMO grain. To provide an abundant and affordable food supply, farmers in this country had to become more efficient. They needed seeds for crops that could survive droughts, disease and insects while at the same time reducing their reliance on herbicides and pesticides.”

It was not my intention to lecture. I wanted the shopper to ask questions – to become engaged in the conversation, and she did not disappoint me. I was able to share a couple more key messages with her:

  • With so many economists and experts talking about a growing world population that will need to eat, efficiency in farming is more important than ever.
  • The genetic makeup of all crops and livestock has been altered by human hands since domestic agriculture began 10,000 years ago. All fruits, vegetables and grain commercially available today has been altered, including organic and heirloom seeds.

It is important when responding to consumers face-to-face that you do not give them the impression that you are overly guarded or concerned against criticism. Be transparent and conversational. Answer their questions but do not throw out so much information at them that you only confuse them. Have ready 2 or 3 key messages that you would like for your customer to remember when he or she walks away from your conversation.

Few farmers have the opportunity to come face to face with the end-user of the bounty they grow, but every farmer has the opportunity to have a conversation about what they grow and how they grow it with a friend, a neighbor, or the woman in line ahead of them at the grocery store check-out counter.

It would have been easier and potentially more profitable for me had I chosen to keep my thoughts to myself and just walk away. I’ve seen others do it many times. Sadly, I’ve also seen farmers mislead consumers. All plant and animal source foods contain hormones, yet I’ve seen farmers promoting their beef, eggs and other products as “hormone free.”

Marketing is good. Lying is not good. If you can’t tell the truth, just keep your mouth shut.

Poverty in rural communities


I often use this space to write about the great divide between those who grow the food and those who consume the food. Many consumers are concerned, or at least interested, in the origin of that which they eat and what they feed their families.

They ask many questions: “Where was it grown? What does locally grown mean? Were pesticides used? Is it organic? Does it contain GMO’s? Were antibiotics used? What was it fed? Was it kept in a cage? Is it hormone free? How much does it cost?”

Ultimately, the answer to that final question determines whether or not the majority of the people will buy it. Preference and behavior are not the same.

For years, many farmers have assumed their rural brethren had a better understanding of how crops and livestock are raised and that it is people living in cities who are disconnected from agriculture. The truth is, farmers make up only about 10 percent of the rural population of 60 million people in this country. Someone living in a townhouse in Chicago might have a better understanding of stacked trait seeds than someone living in a farm house on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere.

There is one great and growing divide between the urban and rural population in this country, especially as it pertains to children. Poverty rates in rural America are on the rise, while urban poverty rates continue a slow decline. Recent USDA findings show that child poverty in rural areas is at its highest level in 30 years, and many predict it will worsen in coming years.

In 2012, 26.7 percent of children in rural America lived in poverty.

USDA’s Economic Research Services (ERS) tells us what most of us already know: An important indicator of the nation’s long-term well-being is poverty among children, since child poverty often has an impact that carries throughout a lifetime, particularly if the child lived in poverty at an early age. As with the early 1980s recession, rural children have been disproportionately affected by the recent economic downturn.

The middle class is disappearing. The economy is frail. There aren’t enough jobs. Many hard-working and capable men and women whose families have lived in your rural community for generations, are sliding deeper into the well of poverty. Some choose that life. Most, however, do not.

Children in your community will go to bed tonight without supper, not because they didn’t come home on time or failed to do their chores. There are babies and toddlers, first and third graders, pre-teens and teen-agers that live in your community, and go to your churches and schools that do not know if and when they will have their next meal.

There has been poverty since the beginning of time and there probably always will be some level of poverty. It is my hope that when you have the opportunity to give someone a leg up, instead of automatically writing a check to be sent overseas, you’ll think about investing in those children in your own rural community.

Fish or famine?


Who are you going to vote off the island? A finger-sized bait fish or Uncle Bill and his extended family? Federal and state governments and a slew of environmentalists have cast their vote for the fish.

In mid-March, a federal appeals court sided with environmentalists over farmers when it upheld delta smelt protections. Those federal guidelines limit water diversions to protect the Delta smelt, and have cut deliveries of Northern California water to the productive agricultural land in the Southland and San Joaquin Valley.

The 3-inch Delta smelt is an endangered species. Efforts to protect it have had a major impact on agriculture in this country’s most populous state. No one knows exactly how many jobs it has cost to protect this fish. A 2009 United States Department of Agriculture study estimated 5,000, while other estimates are in the tens of thousands.

One thing we do know for sure is that restricting water in an effort to protect this fish has hurt the agricultural sector in the state of California with the devastation of hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland.

Ken Anderson with the Brownfield news team recently reported that Harris Ranch, one of the largest agribusiness entities in the western U.S., will be forced to idle two-thirds of its 17-thousand acres of farm ground this year due to a lack of water.

Michael Smith, representative for the California-based Harris Ranch testified before a House Agriculture subcommittee in Washington, D.C.

“In my home state of California, we’re suffering through one of the worst droughts in recorded history,” Smith said. “Make no mistake, however, this drought is made even worse by the actions taken by federal and state governments to restrict the rightful allocation of water to farmers and cattle producers throughout California—especially those in the Central Valley, a region of the state that grows well over half of the fruits and vegetables in this country.”

“As a net result, this year’s zero—to possibly five percent—allocation of water will result in Harris Farms fallowing over 11-thousand acres of some of the most highly productive crop ground in the United States.”

Smith says they would normally grow tomatoes, onions, melons and other fruits and vegetables on that ground.

The entire state of California and much of the western United States is suffering under drought conditions. The direct and indirect economic costs are out of this world. The California Farm Water Coalition said last month that 800,000 acres of farmland has been left idle and 20,000 jobs in agriculture have been lost.

Economists have been telling us for some time now that the world is going to need 70% more food by 2050 to feed the 2 billion more people on our planet. While it is always in the best interest of farmers and ranchers to be good stewards of the air, land, water and animals, I believe the human condition should be a higher priority than a fish that’s only known purpose is as bait.

I believe that certain species reach a natural evolutionary end.

Celebrating women in agriculture


I was struggling with the introduction to a speech I was preparing for the Montgomery City, Missouri Women’s Ag Awareness group last week. A friend of mine suggested I share something I had written as a tribute to my Grandma Doris, Mom’s mom, who passed away last week at the age of 96:

She was born during the influenza pandemic that killed more people than the Great War. Her mother died of that flu when Grandma was one year old. She was born before women had the right to vote. When she and Grandpa farmed in the Illinois River bottoms in Greene County, Ill., from the tractor pulling a planter or cultivator through those fields, she told me she could smell the exhaust from the fighter jets practicing combat maneuvers. No cab on the tractor, and Grandma wore long sleeves, pants, gloves and a straw hat with a wide brim to shade her face from the sun. She passed the General Educational Development (GED) test and received her high school diploma at 75 years of age. Her first ride in a commercial airplane was with me to visit my aunt, her daughter, in Colorado. She was 78. The pilot came out and gave her wings. She liked brightly colored clothing and jewelry. She loved to fish. She was a staunch Republican and proudly cast her ballot in the most recent presidential election. She loved to play cards. She was an amazing writer. Her beautiful blue eyes and smile could light up a room. She and Grandpa raised 5 children. I am one of 19 grandchildren, 41 great-grandchildren and 30 great-great grandchildren that she loved and made feel special.

When I think of the changes she saw in her lifetime, not only in agriculture, but in communications, technology, medicine, culturally, socially, and politically, I am in awe. Hers is a story not unlike many others born and married into life on the family farm in the early 1900’s.

It is a story of perseverance. It is a story of partnership. It is the history many of us share.

Women have always worked in the fields alongside their families on farms in this country, but their role in agriculture, both on and off the farm, was not fully recognized until more recent years. Census of Agriculture Data released this month claims that 30% of all farm operators in the U.S. (969,672 farm operators) were female in 2012.

This Mother’s Day, please take a moment to remember those very special, unique and wonderful “farm moms” in your life. I remember giggling to myself when someone referred to my mom as a “housewife” or later, a “stay-at-home mom.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with either of those terms, but neither would have defined my mother.

Quite often, these extraordinary women are the glue that holds the family and the farm together. These women who can mend a pair of jeans and the fence that ripped them are a special sort and should be celebrated

Get your ya-ya’s out!


Spring is finally here for real and farmers across the Corn Belt have been farming like nobody’s business. Driving from mid-Missouri to central Illinois early last week, I saw a tractor in nearly every field I passed. In cow country, the pastures are greening up and bale forks have been set aside. After a long and some, including me, might say “mean” winter, the growing season has begun in earnest.

As I pen this column, the dark clouds are moving in and I hear the rumble of thunder in the distance. Although we could use a couple more days without rain to finish planting and other field work, the thirsty earth can use a drink and those who have been farming like nobody’s business can use a break.

For many, farming is as much a way of life as it is a business. There are many positive aspects that go along with living and working on a family farm, but there is also a downside. It is almost impossible to get away from work unless you pile in the truck and drive away. Far away. If you go to church, a local restaurant, grocery store or the post office, someone is going to strike up a conversation about corn planting or calving.

Butchers, bakers, candlestick makers and farmers all need to take time to escape the daily responsibilities of their career of choice. Doing so is good for both physical and mental health.

When Tom Steever came to interview for a spot on the Brownfield Ag News broadcast team more than a decade ago, he asked me if I would allow him to do continue some freelance work with an agricultural television network. He told me that he is a much more productive employee when he can “get his TV ya-ya’s out.”

An online urban dictionary defines “getting your ya-ya’s out” this way: To escape the life dramas that wear on your soul. To be fearless and get through the nonsense life gives you. Experience moments of clarity, beauty, inspiration and hope that everything will be alright.

I am of the opinion that a little more clarity and hope in my life and the lives of those around me can only be a good thing!

Few of us have the luxury to be able to go running off to escape life dramas at every whipstitch, so we need to create our own diversion from the stress of our life’s work. It might be as simple as sitting down under a shade tree with a favorite book and an ice cold Pepsi or thinking about those things that make you laugh out loud. (The fact that a large group of baboons is called a congress cracks me up.)

For some its poetry, for others, power tools. Many believe they don’t have time to “take 5”- but that 5 can help prevent an accident, save you from a heart attack, or simply make you a whole lot more fun to be with!