Five short years ago, I was not a farmer.  I thought I knew quite a bit about farming.  After all, I grew up in rural Iowa!  I had uncles who farmed, friends who grew up on a farm, and I married a boy who majored in agriculture.

Now, almost 5 years after getting our first flock of turkeys, I could probably write a book about everything I’ve learned in the past few years.

But instead of a book, I’m narrowing it down to the Top 10 Things I’ve Learned about Agriculture in the Past Five Years.

1.  There is no “right” way to farm.  Different farmers make different decisions for different reasons.  That doesn’t make one decision inherently right and another wrong.  What’s right for one farm may not be right for another because of resources, labor, equipment, expertise, land, location, market and on and on and on.  My good friends at Red Granite Farm raise their chickens free-range style.  But that doesn’t work for my size of a farm.  Does that mean one way is right and one way is wrong? NOPE! Different farms, different ways to do things right.

2.  Farmers aren’t perfect, but they’re improving all the time.  There will always be room for improvement, but today’s farms are better than ever.  New technology and knowledge has led to better animal care and more energy efficiency.  Farmers are using fewer resources to produce more food, and they’ll continue to make progress in the coming decades.  For example, our state of the art barns use a new ventilation system that keeps the turkeys more comfortable in the summer and are easier to keep warm in the winter.   Better for the animals and better for the environment.

3.  Farmers make decisions based on science, ethics and economics.  All three of these are required for a farm to have a good quality product and provide a good quality of life to its owners and employees.  If we don’t maintain a perfect balance of these three, our farm will not be around for the next generation.

Olthoff: Top 10 things I’ve learned about agriculture4.  Farmers must start talking about what they do and explaining their decisions to others.  Americans want to know where their food comes from, and they want to know that it’s safe.  We can help give them the information that they want, if we open up and share information about our farms.  Programs like CommonGround are a great start, but honestly, they’re a drop in the bucket.  Only 2% of Americans farm now…we need more voices and we need open conversations with consumers.  (>> Some fellow CommonGround volunteers and I having a good time, talking about farming!)

5.  There is room for all types of farmers.  Organic, conventional, GMO, free range, grass-fed, feed-lot, farmer’s market, small, big, medium…we need them all!  Each serves a different purpose or a different market, and each is doing what’s “right” for their individual farm.

6.  It is hard for non-farmers to understand how complicated farming is.  Sometimes, from the outside, decisions seem simple and obvious.  I used to wonder, “Why would that farmer do that? Why don’t they….?”  Now, I know that if a farmer has chosen a certain way to do something, it’s probably for a good reason!  And without knowing the daily ins-and-outs of that farm, I AM NOT in the position to judge their decision.

7.  There is a lot of misinformation out there.  A LOT.  I don’t claim to know everything, but I am continually running into “scary” info that seems hard to believe.  When that happens, I turn to a farmer and 9 times out of 10 it turns out that the alarming article I read was full of fallacies.  And if the information was true? Most of the time, if I keep an open mind, the farmers can explain the farm practice and I can see the positive side of the farm practice.

8.  Farming is risky (and hopefully rewarding.) There are financial risks and safety risks, and almost all farmers are at the mercy of the (completely uncontrollable) weather.  Agriculture is in the top 10 for most dangerous jobs, and you can still see the effects of Farm Crisis of the 1980s in our rural area.

Olthoff: Top 10 things I’ve learned about agriculture9.  That being said, the farm is an amazing place to raise children.  Working together as a family, exploring the timber and creek on our farm, picking raspberries in the backyard in July, petting a lamb and riding tractors with Grandpa are things that are a daily part of our lives right now. These wouldn’t be possible if we weren’t on a farm. I joke that our farm IS a field trip, but it’s true!

10.  To farmers, the farm is like another child or spouse.  I wrote about this before, but I want to finish up this list by underscoring our love and devotion to our farm.  Sure, farming is hard.  And risky. And stinky (literally.)  But it is a lifestyle that we are committed to – something deep within us – for the rest of our lives.

I could probably add a few more to the list…

  • Farmers have a vast network of experts helping them make decisions – vets, scientists, universities and other farmers are always sharing information.
  • There are many, many things in place that keep food safe: disease testing, antibiotic residue testing, biosecurity, and sterile processing plants are just a few.
  • Animal welfare and food safety are #1 for livestock farmers.
  • Agriculture has a HUGE, unimaginable positive impact on rural economies (and the economy of the entire state!)
  • There are amazing leaders in the agriculture community, including amazing WOMEN.
  • Big farms aren’t inherently bad farms.
  • 97% of farms in the US are family farms!

…but who ever heard of a “Top 17” list?

Now, readers, it’s your turn. What have you learned about farming in the past few years?  What have you learned from my blog? And what do you want us (farmers) to teach you?

(And I’d LOVE it if you’d share this blog post – help others discover the truths about farming that I’ve uncovered over the past 5 years!)

As always, if you have questions about farming, please ask. I am an open book!