As a city/suburban girl my entire life, attending the Family Farmed Expo was a learning experience. Sure my parents grew vegetables in the back yard, but that’s microscopic when compared to a full-on farm that is the livelihood for a family. I learned this weekend that if you want to be successful as a farmer you can’t ever look at a farm as just something they do in rural America. It is a business, and each farmer is an entrepreneur. If you plan to run a farm you need to understand business, marketing, financial planning etc. You would do well to get an MBA. Gone are the days of owning 100+ acres of farmland, plows and tractors. Farmers today lease the land, and some rent the equipment. There are places like Angelic Organics Learning Center and Prairie Crossing Farm Incubator to teach you the art and business of farming for those “crazy enough” to want to become a farmer.
If we as a country want to get the “Buy Organic – Buy Local” movement off the ground we are going to need more farmers. I learned at the Expo that 98% of all crops grown in Illinois are exported. The majority of those crops are corn and soybeans used for either feeding livestock or as industrial products. The supply of locally grown food just isn’t here in Illinois — 96% of it is imported. If we want the best food with the most nutrition, we consumers need to help the local farmers so that the production of food becomes profitable. Show them there is a demand so that they can provide the supply. We need to show corporate America that we don’t want the factory farms. We want food in our food, not something engineered in a lab, and not animals force-fed stuff they wouldn’t eat in nature.
The more we demand cheap food at the grocery stores, the more we beat down the farmers. The cost of cheap food is too high on all of us. What we don’t pay in cash, we pay for with our health. The farmers lose income by being short changed when they sell their crops or livestock. We all continue to pay as we see our children become malnourished and diseases like diabetes and heart disease rise.
I used to think “organic food” was a joke. By definition isn’t a piece of chicken inherently organic? I’ve since learned that there’s more to it. Big business has changed our food supply to the point where animals are bred and raised for their ideal processing size. We have changed life to fit the machines with these giant feed lots and factory farms. Meat has become a widget — every single chicken breast should not look exactly the same! We also need to process our food on a human scale. These massive meat processing plants are killing the art of butchering meat. Chefs are among the only people keeping that art alive. This needs to change before all the small processors who could help with the specialty meats have disappeared.
This movement doesn’t start with the farmer or even with big business. It starts with the consumers. As a consumer, I hate spending a lot of money on food that I may throw away. I need to be more mindful to buy only what I can eat, though it would be helpful if companies packaged food for single people as well as families. I’m on an extremely tight budget, so I’ll have to get creative and find ways to properly store and preserve the food. I need to start cooking more and find ways to freeze or store left overs for later meals. I also need to do my homework to find out where my food is coming from.
I plan to visit The Butcher and Larder, a small butcher shop that sells locally sourced specialty cuts of meat and happens to be just down the road from me. Owner Rob Levitt was on a panel where they discussed how to use the whole animal to promote sustainability. I understand that they get a limited amount of product, and those choice cuts sell out quickly if you don’t call ahead and reserve them first. Although I know nothing about different cuts of meat, I would be able to walk in, let them tell me what they have, and sort out my menu based on that.
As for vegetables, I need to learn what’s in season and I start going to the farmer’s market. I’m also going to try a CSA. That will take a lot of homework to make certain I don’t get stuck buying a crate of food I’ll never eat and can’t preserve. Joining with friends would be a great way to split the bill as well as an introduction into educating them on how to change the food industry.
If more of us demand real food in our food and stop buying cheap fake food, we can create change. I know in order to do this I will have to change everything about how I look at and interact with food. My parents and grandparents lived this way. I know I can learn to do it, too.