Monday, November 18, 2013

Lucky man.

So yesterday, the upper midwest saw some of the most severe storms we’ve ever seen this late in the year. While the damage was nothing like what the folks in places like Illinois saw, it was still significant around our area as well, and my family was affected.

This morning, I arrived at the “main farm”, where my grandparents live, and saw for myself what had happened. One post frame building destroyed, debris around the yard, and no power. We spent most of the morning at afternoon removing building pieces so we could get equipment out, hooking up generators, and trying to get things up and running again. When the power went out, we had the grain dryers running, so we had thousands of bushels of wet corn in trucks and bins that would start molding quickly if we couldn’t get it dried, and fast. As I worked around throughout the day, one thought kept creeping into my head.

I’m a lucky man. 

My family is safe. My farm buildings and home are (for the most part) still standing. I didn’t loose any equipment.

Compared to many farm friends south of me, I’m damn lucky.

When I took to social media this morning with pictures and stories, it wasn’t about looking for pity, or a “hey, look at how bad this is” moment. I’ve decided that I’m going to share my farming life with the world via social media, and this was part of that. The good, the bad, everything.

Then, something even more humbling that I can put into words started happening. 

First it was text messages. 

Then the Facebook postings. 

Finally, the phone calls.

Other farmers and ranchers all over the country were reaching out, contacting me, wondering how we were doing, how bad the damage was, asking if there was anything they could do to help out.

Then it struck me. 

Compared to having a town leveled, or loosing half your cattle in a blizzard, or having an entire crop lost by flooding, this was a minor inconvenience. 

And these people, these wonderful friends, many of whom I know only on Facebook and Twitter, were asking if we were ok, telling me they were praying for us.
I was beyond words.

And then, it hit me.

This is farming. This is what I do. And this, and they, are why I do it.

I am truly, a very lucky man.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

An Idea, Not a Place.

Today is July 4th, the day we celebrate our independence; and if you’re like most Americans, you’ll celebrate it in similar fashion: burgers and beer, boating and the beach, bar-b-que, and of course, fireworks. But what are you really celebrating? I’m challenging you to think about what all this means a little more today...

On a hot July day in 1776, a group of men, the Continental  Congress, finished and signed a document that would change the course of history. In one swift move, and under penalty of certain death, they gave the most powerful man on the planet, King George, the finger. They informed him, and the rest of the world, in no uncertain terms that they were starting a new nation, based on some very basic principles:

  1. People have the right to express themselves, worship their personal God, and live without fear of government.
  2. Said people also have the right to fair treatment if they screw up, and have the right to keep the government at bay with the use of deadly force. 

There, I’ve summed up the declaration of independence and constitution in four lines. 

But what does it really mean?

It means that America isn’t a place. It’s an idea. America is about freedom, liberty, and personal responsibility. The American ideal says “we don’t need the government to take care of us, we can do it ourselves”. Today, I fear some of that is lost, which is were I get to the most important part of this blog: You.

What are you willing to do to preserve the American ideal? If we don’t keep it alive and defend it, those men did that work for nothing. 

If we don’t defend it, then the soldiers who fought in Pennsylvania 150 years ago this week, did it for nothing. 

And if we don’t defend it, then the thousands of young men who grew up in the depression, and traveled half a world a way to storm beaches in France and on Iwo Jima, they too, did it for nothing.

So here’s what I’m asking: As you flip burgers, or crack open another beer, or take another lap around the lake, ask yourself:

What am I willing to lay before the alter of Freedom to ensure this idea lives on?

If we are willing to sacrifice, in some way, then this Great Nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not parish from the earth.

Happy fourth of July everyone.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Why Food Democracy isn’t really about Democracy.

Right now, a group called Food Democracy is urging folks all over the country to try and stop the continuing resolution passed by congress last week from being signed. They claim there is a piece in the CR called the “Monsanto Protecting Act” (which, I might add, is a made-up BS term). What they are really pissed about is the fact that this small piece of the CR protects farmers from activists and activist judges. Let me explain...

This small piece allows the USDA to allow for the cultivation and harvest of a crop, even if a judge or court has ordered it to undergo further review, and be removed from the market place. And we aren’t talking about some wild ideas here-we are talking about a group who wants to remove all traces of GMO crops from the planet, by any means necessary (kiss your seedless watermelons goodbye). 

For me as a farmer, this small piece provides me with much needed security. Without the USDA stopgap, a judge somewhere could rule that my corn crop growing in the field would have to be destroyed, with no recourse or remuneration for me as a farmer. A single judge in California could rule that my Roundup Ready corn, which has nearly 25 years of testing, regulatory approval, and real world experience could be banned, and I would be forced to destroy my entire crop, costing me millions of dollars. It would bankrupt my family overnight.

But here’s a real world example for everyone:

Let’s say you buy a lot and build a new house. 2 months after moving in, a neighbor says that your house is too close to his, and he doesn’t like it. There’s no scientific or logical basis for his gripe, but he takes you to court anyways. In court, the judge rules that he’s not sure about the neighbors complaint, but just to be safe, you need to move out of your new house and bulldoze it. If he decides the neighbor is wacky, you can rebuild your house, but in the meantime, you must tear it down and find somewhere else to go.

This is the world of uncertainty we live in. I would LOVE to have the time to talk to everyone in America about technology, Monsanto, GMO crops, and why I farm the way I  do, but I can’t. So please, try to trust us, just a little, and try to trust the USDA. Anyone who thinks the USDA is in bed with bio tech companies, well, I’ve got some ocean front property in Indiana for you.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Top 2 Percent

These days, we hear more and more about “The Top Two Percent”, those Americans, according to the President, who need to be paying more in taxes to help balance our budget. American farmers, who happen to also be two percent of the population, are caught in the crossfire of this claim. Now, I could go on and on about how Obama’s second term is going to hurt small business; but I’m going to focus on the main point: taxes. You see, family farms like mine are also small businesses, and, due to our wonderful tax system, are taxed as such. Let me explain...

Most family farms, like mine, are incorporated into what’s called a LLC (Limited Liability Corporation). Now, an LLC is a great way to operate; it gives you some liability protection from lawsuits, and if your business does fail, it can help keep you from loosing everything you’ve ever made. But there is a bad part of LLC’s: the taxes.

Now, LLC owners, like most Americans, file a 1040 with income and expenses. So let’s just use some simple examples. Right now, President Obama wants to raise the tax rates on the “top 2 percent”--those who earn over 250,000 a year--substantially. That will cost family farms millions, and hurt folks like me who are trying to earn an honest living, and provide jobs to others. See, when I file taxes, I have to attach what’s called a “schedule F” to my 1040; it shows how much farm income is passed on to me. Let’s say my farm “makes” 200,000 dollars in profit. Now, anyone who owns a business can tell you, you never, NEVER, actually “make” that. That’s what you show on paper; in reality, you may not have paid yourself anything, or maybe only a few thousand dollars; you’re constantly reinvesting in your business. But that doesn’t matter; according to the IRS, you made 200,000 dollars. Now, if your spouse works in town, as mine does, and has a good job, you can eclipse 250,000 pretty fast. 

This rhetoric about “top earners paying their fair share” is a killer. I can tell you right now, we are sitting on capital, as many small business owners are, because we are unsure about what the future holds in terms of taxes, regulations, ect. Regulations like Dodd-Frank have made it harder and harder for the small town banks to lend us money to operate, forcing us to keep more cash on hand. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars with local contractors build more grain and fruit storage, we’ll sit on our hands and see what the future holds. 

This isn’t just in farming, folks. This is happening everywhere.

Elections have consequences, and we have to live with the will of the majority. Unfortunately, I believe far, far too many in that majority have never signed the front of a paycheck, balanced the books, and paid the taxes. But, if you understand what I’m saying, and if you agree that we need to keep small businesses hiring and growing, please, take the time to talk with your congressperson about this issue. 

Jeff VanderWerff is a 4th generation farmer from Sparta, Michigan. When not ranting about politics, he raises corn, wheat, soybeans, apples, and peaches. You can find him on YouTube at

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Free (corn) Markets

Just incase you’ve been living under a rock for the last 3 months or so, the Midwest, hell, the whole country, has been gripped by a massive drought, which has crippled yields, especially for corn and soybeans. In fact, the crop failures are so massive, that corn and soybean “futures” (prices) have reached record levels; and those costs, unfortunately, will in some way be passed on to the consumer. 

It’s not that we want to charge you more, but our hands are tied. The corn cattle and chickens eat is more expensive; same goes for the soybeans that pigs and dairy cows consume. And then, there’s the pink elephant in the room: 


Many, many grain famers, like myself, sell some of their corn for ethanol production. Now, there is a by-product, called DDG, that is fed to cattle in place of “whole” corn, so it’s not a total net-loss for feed. However, that hasn’t stopped several livestock groups and some producers from calling for a “waiver” for the amount of ethanol the government says we need to put into our gasoline.

Now understand, I’m writing this from the perspective of a grain farmer; but I’m also writing as a consumer of meat and dairy products. What I have the biggest problem with, in this whole “waiver” debate, is that the government is picking winners and losers, and when that happens, we all loose.

If we allow the government to shut down ethanol production to satisfy the demands of livestock producers, then what about the inverse? When corn prices crash, can we demand an increase in ethanol to prop up my industry? How about then dairy prices drop; should we control supply with a national quota system? The same quotas could apply to pigs, turkeys, ect. 

If we head down this road today, we are asking the government to take away our rights to free markets tomorrow. 

I’m not going to propose a solution to this issue; I know folks at all corners of this table who are struggling, and who have strong opinions. The larger question I simply want to ask, is, are we as farmers and ranchers ready to give the government this much control over the principals of free market economics that we all thrive under??

Jeff VanderWerff is a 4th generation fruit and grain farmer from Sparta, Michigan. To learn more about his family farm, and the drought, visit

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Bailouts, Handouts, and Crop Insurance

So there seems to be a lot of confusion out there by many people, including people who I believed understood how this system works for farmers. In the spirit of full disclosure, the numbers I’m sharing are generalized, and this blog is going to be bail now if you’re not into understanding economics, farm finance, and insurance.
People often see or hear about a crop loss, in this case fruit, and wonder about the “bailout” the farmers will receive. Well, first off, there is no bailout. My farm isn’t GM, and I don’t have union clout to demand help. The government does provide disaster payments, so I’ll address those first.
When you hear about a farmer receiving a disaster payment, some would have you believe that a USDA or FSA (Farm Service Agency) person shows up at the farm, says “well Jeff, how bad was it?” and whips out a check for a couple of hundred grand. Let me impart some reality on you; we last had a major freeze event in 2010. Joe and I lost about 1/2 of our crop that year, and the government declared a disaster for our area. That started a going-on-two-year bureaucratic nightmare that still hasn’t resulted in my seeing a single damn dime of money. Is the government going to just “mail me a check”? Probably, but who knows when; if it was really that dire, I’d be bankrupt looonnnngggg before those ultra efficient government employees decided to act. Oh, and the amount? Probably about 20 or 30 thousand dollars which yes, sound like a lot, but when your farm has gross revenue north of 300 thousand a year, it’s peanuts.
So that brings us to crop insurance, which most of us have, and all of us support. So here’s the basic rundown of how it works; every year in October, I have to decide if I want to have insurance for the next year; keep in mind, I’m still picking my current crop and now I need to start making decisions about my NEXT crop. And if I do want insurance, you pay now. Upfront. Like, 20 grand. And no, they don’t except monthly payments, food stamps, or American Express. It’s cash on the dash if you want to play. So let’s say we do have that catastrophic loss that we saw this year; first, it’s not like car insurance. They don’t run out, look at the damage, and pay. They wait; we MIGHT see an adjuster by July or August. And the check? Probably October 1, best case. So every year, you write this check, hoping you don’t freeze, or have hail, but if you do you have your crop insurance. Payday, right? Well, check out the math....
So here’s where the rubber meets the road. How much insurance money comes in, versus how much it costs to keep the lights on. So here it is:
Crop insurance revenue: roughly 1100 dollars per acre; I farm about 120 acres.
Cost of sprays, trimming, mowing, and maintenance: around 1300 dollars an acre.
Cost of payments for such minor things as: land, bank loans, machine payments, insurance, utilities, ect: around another 75 thousand dollars a year.
So do the math: at the end of the day, even this this “huge payout” I’m loosing my ass. Plain and simple. Crop insurance isn’t about a “giant payday”, it’s about keeping the wolves away and hopefully living to fight another day. 
And here’s where the shit really hits the fan; we have NO apples. NONE. ZERO. ZILCH. Ok, well, I did find enough for a pie the other day, but that’s about it. See, normally, a loss of 1/2 the crop would trigger an insurance payment; or a hail event would trigger it. In either case, you still have some apples to sell, for something. Even we lost 1/2 the crop, we’d have enough to sell, with the insurance proceeds, to break even. Not the case this year; the crop insurance check I’ll receive this fall is the only revenue my farm will have until about October....of 2013.
So let me put it in real terms for most people: you make 100,000 dollars per year. Due to a disaster, you aren’t going to receive your pay, but you have insurance. In the analogy, you would be receiving about 40,000 dollars. Could your family live on that? Think you’d have to cut back on anything? 
Right now, the farm bill is being re-written; the main debate focuses on direct payments and crop insurance. This farmer supports eliminating direct payments, and improving crop insurance. I hope you’ll do the same.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

What's in a (local) name?

 So on our weekly trip to Meijer this week for groceries, Alyssa and I did our typical stroll through the dairy case for a few items, and to look at food in general (yeah, exciting life I live), when we made this discovery.

Now, at first glance, you say, wow, great, local, Michigan brand cottage cheese!! Finally, I can support a local brand for my cottage cheese needs!!

So, you spin the container around, and you see this....

Ohio, you say!??! What the hell, I thought this was a Michigan product!??! Ohio!??!

So you read down a little further, and you start seeing this plant number codes...

Plant Codes Here ^^^^

So what exactly are plant codes?? Well, my friend, the plant code tells you exactly where the product came from, mainly incase there is ever a recall. But for our purposes, it's going to tell us where the product was made, and most likely, where some of its ingredients came from. In this case, it came from plant 26-330. Using our handy-dandy link to the FDA's website we see that the first numbers, 26, signify a Michigan plant. The second numbers, 330, are the plant code; plant 330 is the Country Fresh plant located in Grand Rapids. This plant uses milk from many of my neighbors, and a lot of milk from West Michigan in general.

Same product, same plant, same milk.

The "Michigan" brand: 3.99

Country Fresh brand: 2.49

Just because the label says where it came from, in this case Ohio, that doesn't mean it actually came from there. When in doubt, check the label, and if you're still unsure, do a little research. The information is out there.