March in Indiana is Agriculture Appreciation Month. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about farmers these days that may leave you wondering. Are farms too big? Do farmers care about their animals? Are farms bad for the environment? So with all that confusion circulated around, you may wonder why you should appreciate farmers.
Here’s my take on that.
1. Farms are a legacy, family business
97 percent of American farms are family-owned. Most Indiana dairy farmers live and work on land that has been in their families for generations. Even the cows have a legacy–some farms have “closed” herds, which means any cow on the farm is the daughter, granddaughter, great-grandaughter and so on of cows who were born on that same land generations ago. Taking care of the farm’s land is an absolute priority. Fields that aren’t well maintained and ground that is overworked aren’t good for a farmer. Farmers use methods like crop rotation, cover crops, and even conservation programs. Farmland provides habitat for many creatures, from rabbits and racoons to redwing blackbirds and hawks.
2. Farmers are dedicated to their animals’ well-being
“If you take care of your cows, they’ll take care of you,” is a common dairy farmer motto. Farmers obsess over details like what size of napping space will encourage the most lazy, napping cows, what tiny changes can be made to the cows’ food to make her healthier. The early morning milkings that begin in the middle of most people’s nights, the late night calvings that can extend into morning rush hour, and all the other sacrifices dairy farmers make every day are so their cows can be healthy.
3. Farmers feed us
This may seem like an obvious one, but it’s really amazing when you think about. Just one hundred years ago nearly 50 percent of the population farmed–and they had to farm, or they would starve. Now, 98 percent of the population doesn’t farm. The 2 percent of Americans who are farmers feed the rest of us. Agriculture has long been considered the foundation of civilization. Farmers allowed people like Socrates, Galileo, and Shakespeare to do something other than spend all day hunting and gathering. Today, that two percent of the population is what allows the rest of us to live in towns or cities, have non-farm jobs, and still eat. Pretty awesome.
4. Farming is incredibly hard
At a conference the other day, I saw two farmers filling out a form with a box for “company/position.”
“What did you put?” one farmer asked.
“Oh, just farmer, nothing fancy,” the other said. “What’d you put?”
Farming is hugely risky. Input costs are incredibly high and the return on investment takes a long time. Farms aren’t well-known for their liquid assets–all the value of a farm is sunk in the land, the cows, the equipment, and the buildings. It’s impossible to predict a good year–when the weather and markets cooperate–and a bad year–when there’s too much rain, or not enough rain, it’s too cold, or too hot, the markets are too low or prices are too high. Weather and events across the country and even around the world affect farmers’ business. Whether it’s the drought in the American west or political unrest in the Ukraine (nicknamed “the breadbasket of Europe” for its fertile land), any event can tip the scale that makes a good or a bad year for a farmer.
That’s why this March I raise my glass (of milk!) to the dairy farmers I work with here in Indiana, and to all farmers across the county and around the world.