Olthoff: Top 10 things I’ve learned about agriculture

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Katie OlthoffKatie Olthoff 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.

1There 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.

2Farmers 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.

3Farmers 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.

Katie Olthoff Katie Olthoff 4Farmers 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!)

5There 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.

Katie Olthoff Katie Olthoff 9.  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!

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Kansas  |  April, 07, 2014 at 09:03 AM

Excellent piece of writing. This is what should be on the front page of the New York Times, instead of what is normally printed there about farming.

Katie Olthoff    
Iowa  |  April, 07, 2014 at 10:58 AM

Thank you!

Kimberly Rassi    
Brooklyn Heights, Ohio  |  April, 09, 2014 at 08:36 AM

I agree with Kansas! You are a really good writer. Not many AG folks can say that! Having been born and raised in the greenhouse business back in the height of the hot house era, and then seeing the end of this high production facility come to a close due to policies of the EPA, energy prices and labor department issues, then starting over in a new segment of AG, I can relate to all you have said. Been there and done that... and even now, I revise the plan to stay in Ag for the next generation... good thinking involves plans that are attainable. Experience is priceless. Thanks for sharing this. I will be following.

Sacramento, CA  |  April, 17, 2014 at 11:37 PM

Thank you for taking the time to put in writing what many do not give a second thought to. My experience with farming started when I was 10 years old helping my father put in our family vineyard (how he got a 10 year old to sit on a tractor all summer putting in endposts I still do not know). Spending the best part of my youth out in the vineyard and exploring the creek that ran though our property was the best thing that has ever happened to me. It gave me an appreciation for wild things that had carried through to my professional career. Now I "farm" marshland, encouraging specific native plant growth for the benefit of migratory waterfowl and many other marshland animals. I also take this passion and knowledge and spread it to children and adults that have not had the awe inspiring experiences of being out in nature and taking an active role in it through teaching hunter education classes and camps. All things, whether crops, or domestic animals, or wildlife have their own set of responsibilities so thank you for taking on those responsibilities so the rest of us can benefit from them.

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