What happened to the family farm? Maybe it’s still there

Published 9:08 am Wednesday, August 5, 2009

In the 1980s and ‘90s and even now, government and people have been trying hard to save the “family farm.” Evidently, we Americans use the family farm as a piece of Americana and feel the need to preserve what we feel it represents. The same can be said about the cowboy, a person or image from our present or past that represents what America is all about, and somewhere down the line we have ties to.

In the’80s and ‘90s, in an effort to be fair to all farming operations with government payments, the government was trying to define the family farm. It was just never defined; therefore nothing special happened to save the family farm. During that period, farmers went out of business, others joined forces with large corporate-type crop and livestock farms through contracts, and found a way to survive and keep the “family farm.” The industry evolved and today isn’t the way it was when your grandparents were alive. But it is still alive and well, by changing to meet what the market asked for.

In the Earl Butz 1970s era, the push from the government was to grow corn from fence row to fence row with the goal to keep corn and food cheap. The farm programs offered producers payments to raise a crop below break-even prices. This, in turn, would allow the consumer to keep food costs low, since everything we buy or eat today usually has some corn or corn byproduct in it. Corn was and still is king.

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At the same time, Sam Walton was building stores offering consumers an economically priced product. By dealing with large companies and buying large quantities, he was able to offer a low-priced, very affordable product plus have a wide variety under one roof. On the downside, small mom and pop businesses had a hard time competing mainly because of the inability to buy in bulk and keep prices at a competitive level.
The Albert Lea Noon Kiwanis Club will hold fundraisers at the Albert Lea Farmers Market today and Aug. 12 from 4 to 6 p.m. For $5, people can get a hot dog or brat, chips, bar or cookie and pop. Proceeds go to area youth programs.

Through all this, small business and small (family) farms needed to change to stay alive. Offering more service, or getting a contract to raise livestock for larger companies, are some of the tools farmers use to stay on the “family farm.” Not necessarily a bad thing, because the government’s goal in agriculture is to have a large supply of food on hand, and to keep food prices low. In the process we have lost touch with the locally grown commodities.

Rarely can you find locally grown meat or eggs at a large discount store. Some grocery stores will purchase locally grown, but the small town store just isn’t there anymore. Instead, our food we purchase can be from anywhere in the country or world, and in order for that to happen, transportation (fuel, middle men, etc.) needs to happen. If a large company can supply a large quantity of product to meet the demand, the margins can be narrower which will squeeze some smaller companies/farms. These are good things when the goal is cheap food, but the consumer can lose touch with what their eating or the benefits of knowing where their food came from and why.

A local farmers market offers a great benefit to the community. Your local farmers market has available locally grown fresh meat and produce, as well as baked goods and crafts. A consumer doesn’t have to wonder from what part of the country the lettuce came from or how it was cleaned and packaged in California, and kept fresh for me to purchase in Albert Lea. Or with the T-bone steak on sale at the large discount store, what was the age, how long ago was it processed, did it come from a huge feedlot? The public has gotten farther and farther from the farm, or the origin of their food.

Fast food or eating out meals are more common than made-at-home meals, and quick-fix microwavable meals are very common, but so are obesity, cancer, heart disease etc. The point is that Albert Lea was chosen as an AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project city, which means we have an opportunity to live healthier, or find ways to eat healthier. The only way we can do this is by learning more about what we eat and why. There are whole food stores, organic produce and meats, grass-fed all-natural products. These are not fads. They are available to offer a healthier alternative. Consumers have a huge advantage using a local farmers market. Not only is the produce and meat raised locally, which saves on the environment, and keeps our local economy strong.

Consumers can ask the questions like: Which roast is leaner — a rump roast or a chuck roast? What feed was fed? Is it grass fed and/or grain fed? Maybe they can just get some good recipes. But it all is a start in learning the where, what and why of your food, and the more educated we become on what we eat the healthier we’ll be.

Dan Matz is member of the Albert Lea Farmers Market.