In the interest of total and full disclosure, I’m not a farmer. In fact, I’m probably as far from a green thumb as they come – usually any gardening efforts of mine are so paltry that even the rabbits turn up their wrinkly noses and pass on by.
But one blessing I did enjoy was growing up in farm country, where the blue FFA jackets emblazoned with “Ohio/Evergreen” were worn just as proudly as the green-and-gold varsity jackets our school athletes wore. Most of those FFA members came by it honestly as their parents were but the latest generation of farmers in their families, and they surely had the support of a number of local businesses as well.
So to read an article like this was bad enough, but then it reminded me of a related local story from a few weeks ago. I knew the late patriarch of that farm from serving with him on our Republican Central Committee from 2006-14, finally retiring in his nineties. (Blan Harcum Sr. passed away in 2016.) Like the farms in the Michigan story, his is being squeezed by low dairy prices and mounting debt.
Dairy farming is sort of an odd pastime here. Although there is a minor resurgence here in the dairy industry thanks to a handful of local ice cream makers, only one that I’m aware of uses local cows (and they host those cows on their own farm.) Instead, most of the agricultural production locally is intended for one purpose: feeding chickens. Most area farmers had a good thing going for awhile: send their corn or soybeans to the local poultry grower and use the end result of those chickens being fed as fertilizer. It’s a rite of spring; one that I call “smells like Delaware.” But in the past decade or so local regulation has curtailed that particular usage of poultry by-products – our state pays cash money to truck poop someplace else. Farmers, though, still get the blame for what often is an urban-based problem of excess nitrogen in the Chesapeake Bay.
But in a nation where a significant percentage of the corn crop is devoted to fueling our cars and not feeding our (rapidly expanding) waistlines, there are some good ideas that get past the inefficient, one-size-fits-all solutions the current market encourages with subsidies and government cheese. People often complain about the farm price supports, but I suppose that’s what keeps the price of groceries down. On the other hand, though, we make it difficult for those who want to try a different way to succeed – just try buying unpasteurized whole milk, for example.
A few weeks ago I heard another idea: since local brewers often have a hard time securing the varieties of hops they desire, would that be something that could be accomplished locally? The question is a good one, but most domestic hop growing is concentrated in the Pacific Northwest. Historically, I found it occurred in states like New York and Massachusetts and that leads me to believe that a cooler climate is desirable. (If you look at it from a state standpoint, though, it may work on the other side of Maryland.) Then again, people may think of a place like California to grow grapes for wine but we have shown it can be done locally.
The question should become one of how to allow the most market flexibility, while encouraging innovation. Farmer’s markets are nice, but that’s still rather inefficient – just like when we get some extra zucchini from our friend, too often what we get goes to waste. I’m not sure the system we have is the system we need, and that lament made me stop and ponder enough to write this.