Cows and chickens, fields of corn, a big red barn, green tractors and dusty jeans – these are just a few of the images that come to mind when people hear the word “farming.” But for today’s farmers, there is much more to agriculture than meets the eye. We spoke with three farmers for their insights on how and why they’re committed to producing safe, nutritious and affordable food.
Here are five things we learned:
1. Most farms are owned and operated by families.
The 2012 Census of Agriculture shows that 97 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the United States are family-owned operations. Most farmers would tell you that working with their family is key to why they are so passionate about what they do.
“The biggest misconception I’ve heard would be that, as farms have gotten bigger, they have been labeled as factory farms. That we just use the land and move on. Yet, every farmer I know is very family-oriented. I love that our farm is something I can pass on to my family, a legacy, a business and a way of life that my kids love,” said William Layton, a third-generation Maryland farmer and owner of Layton’s Chance Vineyards and Winery.
Jenny Rhodes, University of Maryland Extension Educator in Agriculture and Natural Resources, who owns and operates a grain and broiler chicken farm with her family, said, “I love the whole family aspect and wanted my children to grow up the way I did. Instead of rushing home to spend a few hours with my family, we can spend time together working together. We are all family farms and at the end of the day it’s families working.”
2. Farming is efficient because it is high tech.
Farmers use technology to make advances in producing more food that is more safe, affordable, and produced more efficiently than ever before. Layton said, “Many people have an idea of the old-fashioned farmer, but in reality I spend half of my time in the office making GPS maps for what is going on in the field at any given point. We also have tractors that drive themselves, so we are very technology-based, and technology creates efficiency.”
“Everything you do in farming has to be efficient and sustainable and I love working to improve the resources on our farm so that we can do that,” explained Jenny Schmidt, a registered dietitian and Maryland farmer, whose family produces corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, hay, tomatoes, green beans and wine grapes. “When I talk to people about pesticide usage on our farm, I explain that our sprayer for our tomatoes, green beans, wheat, corn and soybeans sprays at the rate of 15-20 gallons per acre for herbicides. It is a 750-gallon tank so using 15 gallons per acre, this sprayer can cover 50 acres per tank – that’s only 0.04 ounces per square foot. This type of efficiency wouldn’t be possible without technology. Also, many people think we are dousing our fields with pesticides, but that would be inefficient. Spraying isn’t dousing.” Learn more about how the “dose makes the poison” in pesticide usage in “Should You Be Concerned with Pesticides On Produce?”.
3. Farmers are passionate about producing food.
“The thing that I love most about farming is working hard and seeing the results of that hard work. At harvest, I love quitting at dark after a 14-hour day and seeing all that I’ve harvested right in front of me. It’s a great feeling to see that,” said Layton.
“Farming is a passionate job and requires patience to weather through the ups and downs. Ultimately, I love being able to care for the soil and land with the available resources and set the stage for the next generation,” said Schmidt.
Farming is a lifestyle, not just a job. It is 24 hours a day, seven days a week and every day of the year! (Yes, this means vacations are nearly impossible to take!)
4. Farmers use a variety of production methods.
Debates about “organic” and “conventional” crops suggest there are only two ways to grow food: a “good” way and a “bad” way. But an important question to think about is, “What is the best way to feed a growing population, while reducing the amount of resources required?” To address this, farming will need multiple approaches, not just one.
“Many farmers don’t want to be seen as one thing; for me, I want to be seen as both holistic and sustainable. For example, there are trade-offs with all production methods. And each provide different benefits: it’s not an either/or, it’s more about melding the practices together,” added Schmidt. Want to learn more about organic versus conventional? Check out “Organic versus Conventional Foods: Is There a Nutritional Difference?”.
5. There are many ways to become involved with agriculture.
Farm and ranch families make up just two percent of the U.S. population, while most people are at least three generations removed from agriculture. However, the farmers we chatted with all agreed that getting involved in agriculture is for everyone.
Rhodes said it’s important to know what your goal is: Do you want to learn more? Do you want to own your own farm? “After you figure out your goals, then you can decide how to reach them through things like farm tours, working with different national councils, talking with your University extension programs and, of course, talking with the farmers in your area.”
“Social media is a great place to start and to seek out transparent farmers if you have questions about food. I love sharing information about my farm and interesting news articles that are related to the happenings on my farm,” Schmidt added.
Layton concluded, “Agritourism, corn mazes, farm stands, community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, farmers markets – these are all ways to connect with farmers. Talk with the farmers – they are happy to chat with you! I give tours twice a day every day at the winery and people ask questions not only about the grapes and wines but about our crops, too. I love answering these questions.”
Our food supply is abundant, affordable overall and among the world’s safest, thanks in large part to the efficiency and productivity of America’s farm and ranch families. Want to learn more about growing food? Reach out to a local farmer or let us know and we can connect you with one!