A very worthwhile reminder about food and farms

In a comment to yesterday’s post about inflation, reader Deborah Harvey recommended that I look at the Web site of Two Sparrows Farm & Dairy.  They offer interesting perspectives on small farms, non-genetically-modified seeds and crops, and other interesting subjects.  Thanks, Deborah!

I found an article there about the plight of small farms that resonated with me.  Here’s an excerpt.

This week, Dean Foods gave notice to 140 small family dairy farms in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio that after May 31 of this year, there will be no truck to pick up their milk. Walmart, the largest buyer of Dean’s milk in the region, has vertically integrated and will now be processing their own milk. But not from those farms. Those farms are too small for Walmart to waste their time with. And now, Dean has no avenue to sell those farms’ milk. After years of low prices, it is, likely, the final nail in the coffin for those farms.

These are the guys who are up at work at 5 AM feeding calves, milking cows, and cleaning barns. Then after breakfast, they don their ties and head into town for their 9-5 “day job” before coming home for evening chores and starting the routine all over again.

Truly, over 85% of farms can’t support a family, financially, without added outside income, according to recent USDA surveys.

What was once the most common job in America, now can’t even support a single family.

In a typical year, dairy farmers get only 11 cents from every dollar spent on milk.

From that 11 cents they have to pay for their mortgage, feed, fuel, labor, insurance, equipment, and any debts they have on those items. What’s left to actually feed the farmer’s family?

There’s more at the link.  The article also speaks of the government incentives offered to “big agriculture“, which have simultaneously made it harder for small farms to survive.  It’s worth reading.  (On the other hand, one has to acknowledge that “big agriculture” has increased food production exponentially, thereby doing much to resolve world hunger.  It’s a two-edged sword.)

I realize that many city-dwellers don’t know much about the problems of farmers, simply because they don’t know much about where food comes from.  Miss D. tells of a young woman of her acquaintance (an adult, no less), who literally burst into tears and had an emotional meltdown when she learned that beef comes from what she called “moo cows”.  I’ve heard middle school kids say that milk comes from a factory, completely unaware that it’s an animal product.  (Says a lot for the quality of our education system, doesn’t it?)

This problem has grown worse because so many people seldom travel near farms.  Modern interstate highways essentially seal off the traveler from the surrounding countryside.  One might drive through farming country, but the farm is on the other side of a two-lane highway going in the opposite direction to oneself, or a fence.  There are no stopping places designed to make it possible to walk up to growing crops and see them for oneself.  Rest stops are concreted or paved over, with fast food vending machines serving plastic-wrapped and plastic-tasting food.

In contrast, when I was young, travel involved driving for hours through farming country, with farm stalls encountered at frequent intervals, selling fresh local produce.  It was common to stop, buy some fruit or vegetables, and exchange banter with the vendor.  One could smell the crops as one drove.  Here, my most recent experience of agricultural smells was driving past cattle feedlots in the Texas panhandle – and that sort of smell is not conducive to stopping to enjoy it!

Perhaps we need to get off the interstate highways more often, and drive through more rural countryside.  The article goes on to suggest:

So, as the days get longer, and the sun comes out of it’s winter hibernation, take a ride down a country road and see the vacant houses, the barns falling down, the rows upon rows of corn and soy.

But, when you see that veggie stand on the side of the road, stop and buy something. Buy everything you can afford to locally.

Your dollar will have a greater impact when you buy anything directly from a local producer than switching to an organic item at a chain supermarket. Truly.

More and more farmers are finally starting to see the writing on the wall, and they’re trying to save themselves. They are returning to growing food instead of commodities, and more importantly they are marketing that food directly to customers, instead of selling it for pennies on the dollar to multinational packing and processing corporations.

Farmers are fiercely independent, and they are indoctrinated with the “pull-yourself-up by your bootstraps” mentality, but they can only partially save themselves. The consumer has to help save them.

Instead of Costco, spend your money at the farmer’s market. Or a buying club, or a co-op, or any farm. Buy your food direct from the farm as often as possible.

Not only is it better for your health, (and your taste buds!), it helps restore rural and local economies. The radical intervention that agriculture needs is here, and it’s to do away with the cheap global commodity food system that helps no one and fails everyone. Instead, opt for a vibrant, local, and sustainable food system built on the relationship between farmers and consumers, without the government and middlemen in the way.

It’s hard to disagree.  I think I’m going to try to do more of that in future.  Our little gathering of friends here (Old NFO, Lawdog, Phlegmmy, aepilotjim, Miss D. and myself) already patronize smaller local businesses and farmers markets, to the great satisfaction of our taste buds.  (A couple of local butchers produce steaks, roasts and brats that are mouth-watering, really fresh meat that’s properly aged and seasoned instead of being mass-produced in a sawdust factory;  and farm-fresh vegetables, particularly tomatoes, are significantly tastier than supermarket alternatives.)

There are also a growing number of farms that operate mail-order businesses, sending fresh produce to subscribers on a regular basis, or letting them buy shares in meat animals, to be packaged and sent to them (or collected by them) when the animal is slaughtered.  (Miss D. and I bought half a cow from a farmer a few years ago, and froze the meat for extended use.  We recently ate the last of “Philip Mignon”, and enjoyed every bite.)  It’s known as “Community Supported Agriculture“, and I think it’s a great idea.  The produce is probably more expensive than in a supermarket, but customers say its quality and taste are superior.  For those who don’t live close to farm country, that might be a very viable alternative.

Food for thought, as well as for the stomach.



  1. Here in Denver, in the season, one might walk outside and say, "Oh, it smells like snow." The feedlots are to the North of town.

  2. I can't justify keeping a dairy cow currently so I buy my milk from a trusted dairy farmer in our county. I pay him the same as I would pay in town and get the product hours or minutes old and it's far superior to what's in the plastic jug or carton at the store. It's done on the sly of course since we're both probably violating any number of nanny state regulations. I have to drag a stainless milk can around and keep it and the glass bottles sanitary but it's not a huge chore and the quality more than makes up for the inconvenience.

  3. Where I grew up (in rural New Jersey) there were small (less than 200 acres) dairy farms on both sides of our home. Four of the boys I went to school with were of dairy farm families. There were at least 6 dairy (and chicken) farms within 5 miles of my home.
    None remain today. But some expensive housing developments are there.

  4. If your not milking at least 75 cows there are few co ops that will pick up everyday. It's been that way in PA since the 80's when I rode along on the milk truck. My in laws milk only got picked up every other day. Their co-op went bust twice.

    Milk here in KY with a member discount is $1.09 a gallon at the store. There is no way anyone is making money at that cost.

    The dairy business is very cyclic.


  5. My sister and her husband have a small hog operation in Florida. They're both retired and do it because they enjoy it, which is a good thing since she says they barely break even. She does find it gratifying when customers tell her that the meat from her pigs is far better than what's found in stores.

  6. " Miss D. tells of a young woman of her acquaintance (an adult, no less), who literally burst into tears and had an emotional meltdown when she learned that beef comes from what she called "moo cows". I've heard middle school kids say that milk comes from a factory, completely unaware that it's an animal product. (Says a lot for the quality of our education system, doesn't it?)"

    The ignorance is stunning. Never mind what they get 'taught' in school; what do they think all the cow imagery on dairy products is about? Do they never notice butcher's diagrams in supermarkets? What do they think PETA is on about?

    That isn't bad education, or not only bad education. That's room temperature IQ and a degree of self-absorption and lack of attention to surroundings that should probably be institutionalized.

  7. CSP's comment reminds me of our neighbor of a few years ago. She knocked on another neighbor's door asking "Is your hot water out too?" She was a college educated ex-nun who ran a "Family Counseling" business with her husband.

  8. Back in the '30s and '40s, during the Great Depression, weren't there also a lot of private residents and homeowners who had their own gardens and farm animals (like chickens and goats) which they used for their own means (a.k.a.: butchering their own chickens and consuming goat milk and vegetables from their own garden)
    …right here, in the U.S., even in distant suburbs of major cities?

  9. Some great comments….

    Grew up on Long Island NY, surrounded by farms and maybe 40 miles from Manhattan where a lot of it went. Still remember summers where field of corn and potato faded into the distant haze. Now 50+ years later the spring crop of MacMansions are starting to rot in those fields.

    Like a few here in the Poconos the subsistence farmers of the late 70s got my business, raw milk, fresh potato, apples, and all manner of berries and fresh veggies. it was good trade and good food. I still seek that out, even fresh seasonal truck. Truck was our name as kids for those things that were seasonal, and worth trucking fresh to the markets from what we called truck farms. Farmers markets remind me of that.

    PA also allowed me to appreciate butchering and the difference been fresh venison and beef from animals I'd touched with their hide still on. It teaches one about the world.

    Those that don't understand where their food comes from are idiots.
    If they were stupid we could educate them, many would educate them selves. Idiots are pervasive and likely should starve.


  10. Because some people do not care to involve themselves in raising livestock, gardening or any other commodity business does not make them "idiots". Does anyone here manufacture their own prescription medications? Do you make your own toilet paper?

    It is syrupy sentimentalism to think that one should have the ability or nostalgia to maintain buggy whip factories. The advances of food production is a blessing, not a curse. During WWII, fighter aircraft were produced with seat and rudder pedals (before the advent of adjustable pedals) to accommodate the height of the average U.S. male which was 5' 7". This demographic lived during the "glory days" of pre-modern large scale food production. The stature of humans is directly correlated to the availability of high-quality proteins and fats.

    I have owned a ranch and raised livestock. It imparts no great stamp upon ones character except for fatigue and calluses. I do not bemoan the reality that progress in food production provides us with an economy of scale and food quantity like the world has never seen before.

    I enjoy milk at $1.50 a gallon and overflowing shelves of food in abundance, much cheaper than any of us can produce on a small scale, thank you very much.

  11. The output from those mega-farms gets sent to third world countries, so they can raise a bumper crop of people to die in the next typhoon or other disaster. We have destroyed our farming community to do this. WTF are we doing?

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