From Pasture to Plate- by John Myers, Farmer and Entrepreneur
I have farmed my entire life. I was born to a farm family, all previous generations being farmers as well. Being raised in America, on a farm in the 1960’s, it was easy to see the future of agriculture. In a word, it was ‘more’. We were taught to specialize in order to maximize profits. Get bigger or get out was a popular phase in the farm community. Being downstream recipients of WWII era munitions to fertilizer and pesticide conversion created cheap inputs. University research led the way in developing improved genetics and yield expectations. Government subsidies removed risk and created what was described as a ‘cheap food policy’. Commoditization was in high gear. We were going to ‘feed the world’.
My wife and I started farming on our own in 1980. We milked cows and this had been a premier segment of agriculture for two decades, highly profitable. We received $17 per 100 lbs (about 12 gallons) of milk that year. This was the highest price ever. But, it was driven by government floor subsidies. They radically changed that year. We never saw $17 milk again. At the same time, inflation had caused the price of a car to double in three years and all of our input costs followed suit. Interest rates for car loans were over 20%, and our borrowed capital costs followed suit. No one would write a fixed interest rate loan, no one. The promise my father had uttered, that people need to eat and farmers will one day be wealthy, seemed to be false, empty, and a cruel joke.
Being a serial entrepreneur, I took my dilemma in stride and worked on finding a way to create new revenue to keep the farm for my now family (two new mouths to feed) of four. Working with genetically improved animals and selling replacement animals for a premium price in the past had taught me the rudimentary elements of marketing. So, I found sideline enterprises to create added revenue. With the dairy, our markets were so very limited. The government controlled commodity milk markets (and still do). One of my efforts of which I was very proud was setting up a special load of milk with only high protein (Jersey) milk producers. It was sold direct to a cheese plant at a premium – this brought an added 10% to milk checks on that load alone. This 10% was a real win, but it was the best I could do working in the ‘system’.
I was frustrated. I wanted to give up on my profession. I started other businesses that supported my family. After many years and many changes, I did come back to for-profit farming. My wife learned new tools. Marketing tools, that have changed our life and given us new hope for passing our profession on to another generation in a way that will allow them a true living wage. We learned to close the loop and sell direct to the people who would provide the food we produce to their own families. No co-op, commodity buyer, distribution chain, processing plant, or supermarket involved. Just us and someone who wants to buy our food. Wow, just like my grandfather before commoditization arrived.
Now, people who want to buy better food for their families come to our farm. They bring their kids. They become members of our CSA. The like how we treat our animals and care for them. The educate themselves about their food. We have gone from people who have no connection to the end-consumer to people who only see the end-consumer. Commoditizers measure their success in how much they produce and who has more land or toys. We measure our success in the quality of our food, if we have left our land in better shape than we found it, if we have been good stewards of the land and animals God has placed in our care, and if those who eat our food are better for it and happy we are here to produce it.
I think teaching a child about their world and giving them inspiration is a great resume builder on the only resume that matters. You can’t do that if you don’t connect the pasture to the plate.