Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Have you ever heard of the concept of fair trade milk? How about “humanely certified”? Or Pasture Raised?? Who makes this stuff up?? Well, after some Google time, I have the answer.
It seems a slick talking, well-dressed gentleman by the name of Chad Pawlak is president of a group of farms called Grass Point Farms. Now, the fact that he is “President” seems a little contrary to the whole corporate-farms-are-killing-our-children routine he’s preaching, but we’ll get to that later. When you look at their website, which by the way, is written line-by-line out of what my friend Ben refers to as “Web Marketing For Dummies”, it’s obvious these people have done some homework. And when you read their info, background, and standards, I think we’d all agree with the concepts; safe, clean, healthy milk, produced by cows that are owned by families, cared for according to the highest standards, and are generally happy.
But here’s where ol’ Chad looses me...
He speaks at several points about how cows raised on pasture are happier, cleaner, and how they produce better milk.
He then brings up several points to consider before you buy, such as:
Who is profiting from this sale?
How far did the product travel?
Is the company socially responsible?
There were many more, but I’ll focus on these to start.
My family and I farm about 2 miles from a large dairy farm, where they milk around 1500 cows. The farm is run by a young man, along with his wife, mom, and about a dozen trusted employees. I know everyone on the farm by their first name; in fact, Jason, the owner, and I went to high school and MSU together. But back to Chad’s questions...
Who’s profiting? Well, I’d say Jason, if I had to take a guess. You see Chad, most of the milk at Meijers is produced by guys just like him, from all over the area. They load their milk into trucks driven by local guys, who take it to a processing plant in Grand Rapids, which is within about 50 miles of virtually every place it will end up. By the way Chad, how far is it from Sparta, Michigan over to Wisconsin, because unless you think you can float it over, it’s gonna be a long pull through Chicago to get your milk here.
As far as social responsibility, these farmers are just like the rest of us. We sponsor little league teams, coach soccer, donate to food banks, and pull floats in the Homecoming Parade. We live here too, and don’t you forget it. And while we're on it, remember, his profits get spent on things like my custom farm services, fuel from the local supplier, and feed from the co-op. You know, corporate America at its finest.
If a farmer or company wants to cater to a market segment, that’s fine. But please, don’t bash the rest of us on your way to the top. Offering consumers a choice is never a bad thing, but remember, there were about 20 gallons of Chad's milk on the shelf, compared to about 5,000 gallons of the other guys. I don't think it would have lasted very long if it was the only choice.
As the old saying goes, don’t piss on my leg and then tell me it’s raining.
Monday, November 22, 2010
Some of you know, but most of you don't, that in the last few weeks I've been talking to some folks about a new job with a totally different company.
Well, I did it.
Starting the second week of December, I'll be working with Stein Seeds as a District Sales Manager, overseeing farmer dealers, retailers, and making direct sales. It's a new, exciting opportunity doing something that I've never done, but always wanted to do. It's a big step for me, both personally and professionally. As career moves go, it's one I've wanted to make as it allows me to be more independent; I don't actually work for Stein; I'm a self employed contractor, which is exciting for me. I like working for myself, and I think I'm pretty good at it.
Personally, I'm not sure I've struggled with a decision more in recent memory. At HFB, I worked with my dad, brother, and a couple of close friends-basically, I've worked with the exact same people for 3 different companies in the last 8 years. It's hard to leave them behind, but I know they support me and feel that I need to take a better opportunity as it comes along.
No doubt the next few months will be exciting as I learn a new role, new job, and work a new sales area that I've never been in before-but I look forward to it. It's the constant challenge that gets me out of bed in the morning, and I know I can succeed at it. So if you're in southeast or west-central Michigan, look for me with a new hat on; if you're not, follow me on Twitter and Facebook to see how I'm doing.
Thursday, July 22, 2010
Two nights ago, I attended a Farm Bureau function in Lansing, where I had the chance to mingle and visit with probably no less than a dozen staff members, and they all said virtually the same thing to me: Alyssa said what needed to be said. It isn't popular, but it's true.
So this has had me thinking more and more about this issue the last 36 hours; what is our responsibility as members of the ag community when we know about animal abuse, or pollution, or the misuse of pesticides? Do we, as agronomists, vets, feed truck drivers, hell, just as neighbors, need to start policing ourselves? I think so. We see what goes on around the farm "when no one is watching", and often have the means and ability to intervene. I guess this is what bothers me so much about Conklin Farms-there wasn't a vet, a feed truck driver, an agronomist who saw or at least HEARD about what was going on? If they did, and said nothing, then they are just as guilty as the guy who did the deed.
It's time to be accountable folks, to ourselves, to others, and to our industry. If you have knowledge, you need to report it. Now. That includes folks that watch, laugh about it, or use a "undercover camera". Call the sheriff, and do the right thing, otherwise, the blood is on your hands also.
Monday, July 19, 2010
So, let me bring you up to speed, in case you've missed all the high-school drama that goes on in my little online world. A few months back, a group of farmers & ranchers from across the US came together and formed a new group, known as The AgChat Foundation. Now, the purpose of the foundation (I'm not on it, I'm just surmising here) is to educate and empower "AgVocates", farmers and ranchers who talk about modern agriculture with folks and help answer questions and dispel myths. Anyways, this group is putting together a workshop of sorts next month to teach people how to be better AgVocates. And surprise, surprise, it's filled mostly (from what I can surmise) with people who come from what I would call "mainstream" agriculture; Conventional farmers for some of you.
So apparently, there are those who are upset because they are being "excluded" from the party, in their mind at least, due to their views on modern ag. Now, I highly doubt they are, (again, I'm not part of the selection. 10,000 foot view here) and from what interaction I've had with members of the Foundation they WELCOME all types of farmers and ranchers to join them in productive dialogue about agriculture. Remember that word, productive.
Now, here's where my beef begins. I'm beginning to feel like the big brother who has a younger one trying to push my buttons. Am I open to a conversation about issues like sustainability (whatever that is), organics, pesticide usage, and land preservation? Sure I am. As Dale Carnegie says, "Let's examine the facts". No problem. But when you come out of the gate swinging and ask me how I sleep at night knowing I am ruining the environment, I get a little defensive.
So here's the point. A group that I will, quite honestly, call "fringe agriculture" wants to drag us back to 40 acres and a mule. They attack me and my way of life in blogs, on YouTube, in the media, and in the movies. But as soon as my group, modern ag, steps up and swings back, they go crying to mommy about how they can't come into the tree house.
Time to grow up folks. We will all have a differnt opinion, and that is what makes America great. But, start respecting mine, before demanding I respect yours.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
A little bit into the forum, I was struck by a comment made by a young man from Vermont. He said "Emotion, not technology, will save the family farm!". Alright, aside from the obvious, does anyone else see a problem here? Emotion clouds vision and makes you do dumb things, like buy a new car or join a band, and it's a horrible way to run a business (oh, I forgot. Family Farms apparently aren't business). But there's more to the story...
A few years ago, a piece of land my family had been farming for a few years came up for sale. It was a 260 acre single tract of land, the largest single piece left in the township. We wanted it. Bad. REALLY REALLY bad. But the asking price of over 1 million dollars was tough to stomach. My brother and I were in college, and not much help. My dad and uncle probably could have literally bet the farm and mortgaged everything to the hilt to make it work, but they didn't. And I will admit it, there were tears shed as we watched the dairy farmer who bought it rip up the crops we had planted to put in his own. But that was emotional attachment showing, and that emotion is a weakness. Emotional weakness like that causes farmers to ride a bad situation right to the bottom, instead of cutting their losses and living to fight another day.
Now, don't get me wrong. I love farming and agriculture, and so does the rest of my family. We are emotionally attached to the way of life that we all grew up with, and still live today. But when hundreds of thousands of dollars are on the line every single day, there is no room for emotion. You MUST be able to step back, take a deep breath, and make an objective decision. Was it easy for us to tear down Grandpa VW's old barn? Hell no. But what were we going to do with it? It had no use, and was about to collapse on the pole barn next to it. Emotions aside, it had to go.
I'm confident in the future of American Agriculture and the Family Farm (like mine). Farmers are strong people who see the facts through the fog and make clear, rational decisions. The vision you may have of farming is probably changing, but rest assured, my vision has not.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
For years, farmers have been using biotech crops, all the way back to the 1930’s. By definition, the first time that we cross-bred corn, we were using biotech crops. The science has come a long way since then, but the mission has not-produce more crops, better crops, and cheaper crops. This is the primary mission of agriculture-the more we produce, and the less we produce it for, the more people who can eat off a single acre of American Farmland without having to work on it. Last I checked, the number was around 450 per acre. But back to biotech-see, people need to remember, this stuff didn’t just happen one day. People far, far, more intelligent than me have spent many, many years of their lives working on these crops-researching, testing, designing. I’ve met these people, firsthand, and I’m here to say, they have no motive beyond what every farmer does-feed the world, make an honest living, leave the planet a little better than they found it. Their science, backed by the best universities on the planet, has stood the test, and it’s who it stood before that makes it that much better.
The supreme court, while being a very, very intelligent group of jurists, are not scientists. They are essentially average Americans; Americans who have seen Food Inc, and HSUS commercials with sappy music playing. They shop in the same stores, see the same news, and have read the same books and papers. And best of all, they have the same prejudices towards food systems that many of us do as well; and in spite of this, they waded though the muck to make a clear decision. They have determined that the science passes muster, and while further testing is needed, which I’m confident will prove the validity of Monsanto’s claims, they have shown that science trumps emotion.
Right now, my wife is working on her Masters in Food Safety from MSU, and her current project is a comparison of sanitation (how many bugs are in the eggs) between caged and cage-free systems. The results are overwhelming that cage-raised eggs are hands down safer than cage free; and I’m not just talking one or two articles-I’m speaking about the 3 foot high pile of scientific data that has invaded my dining room table. It’s court decisions like this, and the science I see though my wife first hand, that gives me hope in our future. I think it’s a safe bet that at some point, we’ll see a “prop 2” type issue that is happening in Ohio come before the court. And hopefully, they see the science though the smoke the same way they did today.
Monday, June 7, 2010
I had the duty this weekend to make the trip to Detroit to pick my wife at the airport, but it gave me the opportunity to catch up with an old roommate from my MSU days that lives in the area now. Now, this gentleman and his wife are both extremely intelligent, highly educated people. They are open to ideas and often as us questions about agriculture and food safety. This weekend proved to be no different.
Jim and I headed out to a local restaurant for some good bar-b-cue and a couple of cold domestics. A few minutes into the conversation, the topic swung over to agriculture and farming. Jim wanted to know how the farming was going, what we were up to, etc. At some point we started discussing the new technology we use on the farm. I explained that for example, we have auto steer in our sprayers for row crops, and that we hoped to have the same technology soon in the orchards. He asked if I thought we’d ever see fully automatic sprayers (no driver needed). I told him I believed so, and that we’d see them in the next 5 years. Just as the food arrived, he quipped “I’ve got to believe something like that would hurt small farmers, because bigger farmers can afford the technology and farm more land”. Dinner arrived, and the topic changed.
Here’s the response, because I know Jim reads this blog.
At first glance, yes, I can see where many people would see that point. However, it is interesting that in orchard crops, far more technology is in the hands of small farmers, instead of large farmers. The reason is simple-the technology is complicated, and expensive, and many of the large farmers rely of hired labor to run those machines. They don’t trust those workers with that type of an investment, so they don’t make it. But it brings me to another point I’d like to discuss-where do all the “small” farmers go?
Well, let me tell you.
My family has made no secret in the last 5 years that we want to grow our business and expand our acres. So when the opportunity presents itself, we take it. For example, two years ago, my brother and I had an opportunity present itself to us. A neighbor had become widowed, her husband having died of cancer. Her farm sat, and she had no children or grandchildren who wanted to farm. My brother and I stepped up and purchased that farm and equipment from her. For the first time in 30 years, there was no longer a person with the last name of Fraser farming that land. In fact, that family has left agriculture all together. So to some, that’s a “small family farm” that is gone; and they are right. That family’s farm is no longer theres-however, my family carries on that tradition. The same goes for a large tract of row crop land we picked up this year. For the first time in several generations, this other family is not farming. But it was time for the current owners to retire, and no children or grandchildren wanted to carry on with the farm. What should happen in these situations? Should we just let the land sit idle? Should we develop it all into houses? If not my family, then who?
Our view is someone is going to farm it, it might as well be us. People are going to need to eat tomorrow, and I intend to feed them, wether they like it or not.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
When a release like this occurs, it is imperative that ALL of agriculture stand with a common voice and condemn the actions. Not just cattle folks, or dairymen, or vets. ALL OF US. From apples to potatoes and corn to cucumbers, this should enrage us all. This is a direct attack on agriculture, farming, our families, and our way of life. We need to realize, these people are out to destroy everything we do on a daily basis. I don't care what crop you raise, you need to take the time to talk to anyone who will listen and help dispel this garbage. And this doesn't just go for the animal care issues. Whether it's the EPA trying to ban Atrazine (corn guys take note), labor issues (fruit folks like me aren't real happy with this), or animal care issues, we all have a vested interest, and we need to take the time to stand up and say it. Enough is enough. Period.
What is shown in those videos is sickening, indenfensiable, and inexcusable. However, calling for a ban on farms or farming practices is ridiculous. A few years ago, when I was still in high school, a teacher was caught having, well, "inappropriate" relationships with a few young ladies at the school. This guy was a pervert, and was kicked out of school and punished. But at any point did people suggest closing schools? How about male teachers for male students and female for female only classrooms? Are you nuts? This would have never happened. So why are we demonizing an entire industry over a very few bad actors.
Farmers everywhere should be angry and upset over these events, and they need to show it. It's time to stop quietly driving the tractor and waiting for someone else to fix your problems. It's time to step up, or be stepped on.
Saturday, May 22, 2010
Thursday, May 20, 2010
Took a few minutes out of my busy spring today to get a much needed haircut. Stopped into my barbershop, a local chain that caters to younger men-rock music played, attractive young ladies cutting hair, you know, my kind of place. Anyways, I always get some interesting perspectives on life from the gals that cut my hair, and today was no different.
The young lady cutting my hair today started in with the typical “so what have you been up to” small talk. I told her I’d been busy trying to get planting done, and I was on my way to the co-op for a lunch meeting with some other farmers. She asked me “are they, like, REAL, farmers?” With a laugh I said “yea...., why?” She replied, “oh, I don’t really like farmers, they are dirty and gross!!” Perplexed, I asked her to explain. She explained that she frequented a local watering hole, and, on Tuesday nights (country night) there was always a group of young guys wearing cutoff flannel shirts, cowboy boots, and driving jacked up trucks. She went on to say that they were rude, dirty, and usually drunk. They loudly proclaimed to be farmers to anyone who would listen.
Now, at this point, I’m getting a little bent. So, I asked her, what SHOULD a farmer look like? Well, she didn’t know. So I asked her if I looked like a farmer. “NO WAY!!! You always have a clean shirt on, and, like, carry a blackberry. You look like someone who sells something or runs a business. You don’t look like a farmer!!”
Well, I informed her that I was. And just maybe I have that appearance because I do more managing than wrench-turning these days. I asked her if she thought those guys were real farmers. Well, she didn’t think so, but they looked like they could be. I thought, ok, let’s let this die and see if she takes some bait....
I asked her where she usually buys food. “Well, local stores! You know”, she continued, “local food is better for you than factory food!” Really. So I asked her who she would trust more raising her food, me, or the guys from Tuesday night. “You” she said, “you look like you’d have a nicer farm”. Interesting. At our size, I told her, most people would consider us a “factory” or “corporate” farm. Those guys would, by most peoples guess, be considered “local”. She looked utterly confused, and maybe a little annoyed with me. She finished my hair cut without many more questions.
So here’s the point. We have a serious perception problem with ag in this country. People still view the Hollywood image of farmers, and of their farms. They can’t believe that the modern, especially YOUNG farmer, carries a blackberry and wears a golf shirt. Where have we gone wrong? Are we so busy trying to convince them we know what is best that we’ve forgotten that appearances DO matter?
A friend told me once, “If you don’t want to be treated like you need to be told what to do, than don’t look and act like you need to be told what to do!”
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
In the 1930's, there were hundreds of companies building cars, trucks, tractors, and refigerators. Today, there are a handful. But do you see people on the net bemoaning the death of Packard to that wicked tyrant Henry Ford? Hell no. No one cares about Packard. So why the connection with food? I mean, most people spend more time each day thinking about their car, or using their car, than they do food. Why food? Keep that one in mind, that'll be another blog. But for now, back to our point-when do you make the jump from family to corporate?
When you talk about family to "corporate" transition in American Ag, I love to talk about Cargill. For those of you who don't know, Cargill is the largest privately owned company on the planet. It was founded in the 1860's by Mr. Cargill, his brothers, nephews, and ultimately his son in law, John MacMillian. Today, Cargill is still owned and controlled by the Cargill and MacMillian families. So why did they grow so large? The same reason Henry Ford started building factories-it's the American Way. Capitalism rewards risk and hard work-and both demonstrated this. Cargill wanted a better life for his family, stable work for his children, and a company that his great-grandchildren could depend on. Is that all bad?
When my family and I meet and discuss our vision and mission statements, and our goals for the future, they are pretty simple. To create a viable, sustainable business for future generations of our family. To us, that means we need to grow, expand, incorporate. We need to make sound fiscal and environmental decisions everyday to ensure our profitability and survival. When we buy a tractor, we work off extremely conservative economic models-what if prices crash? What if we lost acreage? Can we pay cash? If not, how fast can we pay for it? We believe these principals make us strong and smart.
So, I ask you, are we corporate, or are we family? We have full time employees who do a sizable share of the work for us, but we are still the owners, and we make all the management decisions (aside from menial day-to-day decisions). We personally have the capital at stake. But we realize that our talents are not utilized best in the cab of a tractor. Are we wrong for that?
Until the 1960's, Ford Motor Company is still more than 50% family owned. Henry Ford the Second (Hank the Deuce) ran the company, and his brothers, uncles, and cousins sat on it's board. Were they family run? At that level, yes. But would anyone call them a family business? Doubtful. So that's the final question I post-are we ready to lump families who have grown beyond a nostalgic 1960's era image on their farms into the same league as Ford or GM? I hope not.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
When dairy prices crashed a few months ago, I'll admit it, I had a small chuckle about it. I had watched dairy farms (not all, just some to be clear) spend money like water. Some paid unbelievable prices for land, tractors, anything. It was like the money would never end. Then the wheels came off. People didn't get paid; new tractors stopped showing up, the new pickups came to an end. Reality. A few months later, the apple industry experienced the same fate. The value of our crop dropped by 50-60% in a matter of weeks. All of a sudden, I'm the guy who can't pay, who isn't buying a new tractor.
So by now your asking, "what does this have to do with anything?". Simple. We all need each other. My orchard spends 4-5 thousand dollars a year on parts at the Case dealer. A 1500 cow dairy spends that every month. I might buy a new tractor for 40 thousand dollars every 3 or 4 years. The dairy spends that each year on tires. But here's the kicker. I spent more money on fungicide sprays at the chemical dealer for 150 acres of apples than they spent on all the inputs for 1500 acres of corn. Now the shoe is on the other foot. I need them and they need me.
So here's the point; when an animal care issue comes up, we need to all become involved. Just because I don't raise cattle doesn't mean I don't need them around. When a food safety issue comes up, I need crop farmers to help defend me, because I need them and they need me. When I hear farmers, young farmers especially, tell me that they don't care about other commodities, it bothers me. I'm still not sure how someone could embrace the concept of a blackberry and a twitter account, but not understand why all sectors of ag are important.
The world is flat folks, and people are moving your cheese on a daily basis.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Well, I suppose I'll introduce myself to you all first. My name is Jeff, and I'm a 29 year old farmer and agronomist here in West Michigan. My wife and I farm in partnership with my dad, uncle, and brother. We currently raise around 2000 acres of corn, wheat, and soybeans and have 120 acres of apples and peaches. In addition, we custom harvest roughly another 2500 acres each fall. I'm the fourth generation in my family to farm here in the US, but I can trace farm roots in the Netherlands back 12 generations. My great grandfather never REALLY farmed-he was the head of maintiance for one of the hospitals in Grand Rapids. The farm was just an investment to him. My grandfather began farming the land in the late 1940's, and they milked cows until the late 70's. My dad and uncle didn't really get into farming as more than a hobby until I was in high school, in the mid 1990's. At that time, we farmed about 200 acres and had a herd of 40 beef cattle. By the time I left high school, the cows were gone and we had almost 1000 acres. That's about the same time we incorporated into a business. My brother and I started our farm (orchard) business in 2004, with 10 acres. In 2009, with 120 acres in production, we combined forces with our dad and uncle and created a "umbrealla" corporation that we all own.
Outside of the farming, we all have ag careers. My dad started with a little seed company called Payco Seeds in 1980. He pretty much stayed in the seed business until the late 90's, when he moved into ag retail. My brother and I, despite going to college for anything but ag, followed our father into the business. Today, we all work for Hamilton Farm Bureau Co-Operative, based in Hamilton, Michigan.
Well, that's me in a nutshell. I'm sure I'll get another blog post up later on. Thanks for reading.