Food, Foodies, Farms, and Trends

Food is what seems to be on my mind lately, and also seems to be in the news relatively often these days.  It is not on my mind just because my farm is part of the food production system in the US, but also because I am a consumer.  I started by wondering why everyone thinks we all need to eat the same things, (vegan activists, and meat eaters who think vegans are crazy and want to reform them).  I really don’t care if you want to eat vegetables all them time, I just care that it is a well balanced diet that provides essential amino acids and vitamins.  I like to eat meat, and that will never change.

Then, I started thinking about my son’s school lunches and how most of the food in his first semester of Kindergarten resembled nothing I had while attending the same school in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  Our food was made from scratch and we had cooks that could “cook”.  If you ate all of your lunch you had the opportunity to get this wonderful homemade bread with peanut butter for dessert, as there was not dessert included with the meal as dessert is a reward in my mind.  It is not that his meals were horrible, they just were all processed (pizza, chicken nuggets, etc.), carb overload in my mind, and not enough protein.  They mostly (4 days out of 5) included some kind of cake, etc for dessert.

How did we get here was my question.  I had great meals at school, and to my son’s credit, he raves about the meals at school and how much he loves certain things.  I took a look at the new menu’s this semester and have noticed some change from cake, etc. to fruits and other things instead of a true dessert.  They still have cookies, or cake once or twice a week, which I personally think they should only get if they finish their balanced meal.

So, my point is that as much as the public wants to blame farmers and the processors for the food system here in the US and the problems it has, the reality is that for the most part, production follows the trends of the public whether they are trends based on science, or based on rumor, the system adapts.  Look at the grocery section now and look at the products(whole grain, whole wheat, natural, etc.) and tell me that the system doesn’t adapt.

The fact is that many years ago people were complaining they didn’t have the time to make meals with the demands on a family’s time(jobs, extra curricular activities, etc.).  So, what did the food production system here in the US do?  We came up with heat and eat meals, processed foods, etc. so working Moms and Dads had the opportunity to have an inexpensive, quick meal at home, instead of stopping by the local fast food restaurant to pick up supper.

Now, we might be moving back towards that time when people want to make their own meals from scratch.  The Foodie movement as some call it.  Put in your own ingredients because then you know what is in that casserole, or you can make chicken nuggets with just flour and some Panko crumbs, or graham cracker crumbs, but you know there is no sugar, extra salt, etc. because YOU made it.  Grow a garden to have a connection to your food.  Buy from farmers markets, etc.  Farmers like myself have no problem with this and actually do these things ourselves.  Local food production is a good thing, just not incredibly viable in December in Chicago or most of the Midwest for that matter.

I personally am not into the organic, natural, etc., however, I do not begrudge you the choice to purchase these products.  Do I fundamentally disagree because I believe it creates inefficiencies that in essence result in less production, which result in someone in this world not having food?  Absolutely, but it is a food choice, and you have the right to make it, and farmers have the right to use that production system to provide you that product if you desire it.   I believe we have a great system here in the US that provides us some great food “choices”.  Some people in this world do not have “choices”.  We are very blessed and I believe we take it for granted.  Farmers, Ranchers, Dairymen, and other producers of our food, feed and fiber take the greatest care in the world to raise our food every day whether rainy, sunny, warm, cold, blizzarding, storming, flooding, or drought, they are out there every day trying to provide a safe, cost effective, nutritious product to feed this country and others around the world.

My point is that we all adapt and change, and your food system has done that many times in the short history of our country.  Be thankful you have choices.

I am proud to be an American Farmer!

The Money Pit????

So, the time has come when our family has outgrown the “Money Pit”.  For those of you that do not know what the money pit is, it is a farmhouse built in 1892 and added on to throughout the years.  Most of this work was not done by trained carpenters, was not done using squares, and used true dimension lumber, not today’s 2×4’s which actually measure 1 1/2 x 3 1/2.  We do have an updated downstairs (kitchen, dining, living), but need some work elsewhere.

With Weeks number three on the way, we have come to the time where you either add on again, or find a new house and enter a new era on our farm. We are the first family in this house to have more than two children, and one bathroom with five people just shouldn’t happen.  Driving this decision is the fact that the foundation (rock gathered by the Indians as my Uncle Dale used to say) on the old farmhouse is in need of some serious repair.  We have looked into pouring a basement in front of the money pit and moving the house over on the new foundation which would allow an addition into a garage that exists now, but by the  time the finish work would be done on the addition and the basement we are looking at well over $100,000 and we would still have an old farmhouse, that is even more of a money pit.

See, the problem with sinking money into the old farmhouse is that it’s money spent  you will never be able to re-coup.  Everybody says the home place will never be sold, and I would agree if we lived on the convergence of two gravel roads 15 miles out of town, but with an interstate access road on one side and a major road to a town of 24,000(1.5 miles to the city limits) on the other side of the homeplace, the odds are it probably will be sold someday.  So, when you look at the possibility that it may someday be sold, do you continue to put money in the old house?  No one will want to buy the old house, and adding on will not add value(except in the county assessors eyes).  The rest of the site(buildings,bins,etc) and the ground have value.  Don’t get me wrong, the house has value, just not monetary.

The economics of the situation are not the hardest to overcome.  It is the emotional attachment to the place.  We are the fifth generation to live here, and will be the first to leave without passing it on directlyto the next generation due to a wedding and the next generation coming back to the farm.  Mind you, we will not tear it down, leave it in disrepair, or let it waste away, we just do not want to continue pouring money in the pit. We will maintain it as we may have a son or daughter who wishes to come back to farm for whom it would be a good starter house. Dad says he should have tore it down years ago and started from scratch (in hindsight, that would have been the best decision financially).  But, for him it was emotional also.  I know the attachment to the place!  I also wonder what the rest of the family will think with someone else (probably a hired man) living on the “home place”?  You see, even with cousins removed from the farm a generation, or even two, there is an emotional attachment to the farm.  They always want to come out and visit the “Farm”.

For our family, the thought of having neighbors with kids the age of ours and a neighborhood actually appeal, as does the ability to leave “work”.  When work is right out your door, it makes it hard to leave it and enjoy the family time we all cherish.  There is always something to do!

So, as we ponder this decision in our lives, moving off the “Home Place”, and not continuing to pour money into the “Money Pi,  my way to justify it is that nobody wants to come out and see the “House”, they always want to come out and see the “Farm”, and it will always be here!

Divide and Conquer

Next week, the Humane Society of the United States will be holding a meeting in Lincoln, NE to undoubtedly start their meddling in welfare of animals in the State of Nebraska.  This organization is in no way related to your local Humane Societies here that are now changing their names to disassociate themselves from HSUS.  Nobody asked them to come here, but they have decided to come here anyway and are going to be introduced by a Nebraska cattle rancher from Litchfield who raises grass fed, natural beef.  I see nothing wrong with his prodution process and the reasons he chose to take that path, but I do have a problem when all of a sudden everybody else’s production system is wrong.  Use you ability to raise beef in that manner as an advantage in a niche market, don’t force it on everyone else.

It is ironic that a cattle rancher who will ultimately suffer from the HSUS agenda would introduce them to our state and our agricultural leaders.  Their goal is not animal welfare, it is the elimination of all food animal production. They do not care if you are natural, organic, etc.  They want a vegan society.   They use dogs and cats as a front to raise millions of dollars to fight family farmers here is the U.S.A raising the cheapest and safest food in the world.  They intend to divide and conquer, and the gentleman from Litchfield is the beginning of their quest.

I am a grain producer, but my largest market is the cattle, and hog industry right here in Nebraska, which also is the largest economic driver in this state.  If you are a farmer and you think your customer is the local elevator and the local ethanol plant, you better go back and take Farming 101 and pull your head out of the sand.  HSUS has a goal to regulate the animal agriculture community to the point that it is not profitable to raise animals for food, and that eliminates the majority of the market for my products.

Ask the equine community here in the United States what effect HSUS has had on their profitablility and ability to operate.  The Argentinians love us as they are now exporting horse meat to the markets we used to dominate and have a whole new income source thanks to HSUS.

So, the question here in Nebraska is, are all ag groups going to unite and fight off this challenge of the way animals are cared for in this state, or are we going to let a 127 million dollar a year activist group come in and tell us the correct way to care for animals that are raised for food?  If history is any indication, I would be willing to bet some ag groups here sit on the sidelines and let a few groups fund the fight saying it is not our problem and start the debate on size of farms during the process.  Hence the “Divide and Conquer” will be achieved.   I hope and pray we all fight the fight together and I am proved wrong.  To see the real story of animal ag production here in Nebraska visit the AFAN website.

Agvocating Takes “Time”!!!

I was spending my time this morning trying to catch up on bookwork and do some of the normal things we do as farmers after getting through harvest and trying to prepare for year end tax prep when I received a phone call from the leader of a business organization in our neighboring city. Hastings is a city that sits only 1.5 miles from my farm here in central Nebraska.  It is the birthplace of Kool-Aid, boasts an ecclectic, thriving downtown, was home to the largest Naval ammunition depot during WWII, and now is home to 26,000+ people of which quite a few are not aware that agriculture is directly or indirectly responsible for 1 in 3 jobs in the entire state of Nebraska.

I have been very active in advocating for agriculture around our area and have taken on roles in various organizations to help promote the great opportunity I have to be a producer of the the worlds food, feed, fiber, and fuel.  It is a role that I did not neccesarily look for, but was asked by different people through the years to do different presentations on agriculture in our community.  Regardless, I embraced it.

So, I agree to meet this person, a member of his board, and a person on his staff.  One of the first things said is how appreciative they all are of agriculture, and the effect it has had on bouying the economy of our area in these tough economic times.  That sense of being appreciated is something the agricultural community needs when so close to a larger city like Hastings (I also appreciate them for ease of access to hardware stores, restaurants, groceries, parks, recreation, cultural activities, etc, etc.).

See, one of the ag boards I am on sponsors an Ag Tour for leaders within the community every year where we try to visit a different part of Nebraska and show the economic and social impact of agriculture.  One of our focuses is to always show a different part of animal agriculture in particular.  These individuals had taken the time out of their schedules to learn about agriculture.  We had begun to make steps to bridge that gap that exists between rural and urban, particulary when you have a large city so close, yet so far away in the minds of most within the city limits.

The way this sudden meeting came about was the attendance of one individual to a meeting about AFAN, (Alliance for the Future of Ag in Nebraska) which is a group here in Nebraska that continues to evolve in order to protect our very livelihood as farmers, ranchers, and stewards of the resources we use to produce the worlds food, feed, fiber, and fuel. A local banker had decided to have a meeting with city leaders to introduce them to AFAN and the challenge they are taking on in defending agriculture.  AFAN has decided their focus is going to be the education of the public as to the realities of agriculture in Nebraska, and let people become Fans, hence the theme “Become AFAN”.  They are going to tell the real story, not let radical environmental or animal rights groups tell the story for us.  If you have seen the map from Missouri’s prop B election, it is easy to understand that our efforts should be focused on Lincoln, and Omaha here in Nebraska.  So, these individuals wanted to know how they could help, and how the ag community could help them help.  I was humbled by the thought that this organization wanted to step up to the plate and go to bat for agriculture in our area, particulary when we think the fight is with the largest animal rights group in the US with a 127 million dollar budget.  To have an organization centered in the city, want to go hand in hand into battle with the ag community to defend agriculture to me is progress!

It was a great meeting with some forward thinking individuals within our community.  I know they appreciate the role agriculture has in this area, but I do not believe this happened by accident, nor did they just wake up one day and realize what agriculture meant to the area.  It was an educational effort that started many years ago that was initiated by our County Farm Bureau to help bridge a gap between rural and urban.  We just need to understand each other better, and realize we all benefit each other, was, and still is our thinking.

Agvocating does not produce results overnight, but over time, we can have a profound effect on the public’s view of our profession.  I have tried to take every opportunity presented me to support my profession, and have seen a lot of results over the last few years from seizing those opportunities, but today I felt like it all came together.  My point is, agvocate and educate when given the chance because it will pay off.  It took a generation or two to remove the farm from people, it may take as long to create understanding and appreciation again, but make the first step.  AGVOCATE!!!  Rotary, Kiwanis, Toastmasters, Lions Clubs, YWCA, whoever is willing to let you talk about agriculture.  It will pay dividends down the road.

For more information on agvocating, visit the AgChat Foundation Website.

Thoughts from the Tractor Seat

Hi, my name is Ryan Weeks and my wife and I operate a grain farm in South Central Nebraska and this is the first blog post for us on our new blog called “Days of the Weeks”.  It is a post born of a restless night of sleep contemplating food, the production of it, and the story behind it.

I spent most of the day yesterday debating on Facebook with one of my relatives as to the safety of HFCS(high fructose corn syrup), compared to cane and beet sugar.  For the record, this is not my only relative who has the belief that HFCS is Satan in corn clothing (they do make clothing material out of corn  you know).  It really lit a fire in me that a person so close to our farm could have a view 100% opposite of mine in relation to a product produced from a raw material I provide that feeds the world.  Anyone who knows me knows that I love debate, some would call it arguing, but I do love the art of a conversational debate, and do like to win them.  This one however I never had a chance.   Instead of stating why I disagreed, I posted a smartass remark that only escalated the hate for my belief that HFCS is the same as table sugar (50%glucose, and 50% fructose).  I personally do not like sugar, and not in a small way either as I am type 2 diabetic.  My body literally hates sugar, and doesn’t differentiate between what kind of sugar it is.  It reacts to the glycemic index of foods, but not the different kinds of the same sugar if you know what I mean.

So, what I found myself doing was defending a product produced from my corn in a way I did not mean to defend it.  All sugar in large amounts such as in soda is a bad thing no matter what kind of sugar it is, cane, beet, corn, etc. etc.  My only point was that they were the same, but because I was so upset with the fact I was once again defending a product made from a material produced on my farm, I lost my focus.  I do not personally care what a person eats, or doesn’t eat, as long as they are receiving correct information that is scientific, not emotional on what their food really is.  We are very spoiled in the USA by the fact that we have food choices.  Most citizens of this world do not have food choice, they eat what is available if anything is available to eat.

The fact of the matter is that we have a consumption problem with sugar in this country.  It is not a chemistry, processing problem, or corn farmer problem.  Removing HFCS from soda in the USA is not going to reduce the amount of total sugar consumed in this country, in fact it might increase it as the food industry is now proclaiming “real sugar” as the new sexy thing in food.  They couldn’t defend HFCS, so they jumped on the sugar bandwagon and are proclaiming it through marketing as a safe alternative to HFCS, creating a false sense of security by letting people think that 5 Dr. Peppers with sugar are better for you than 5 Dr. Peppers with HFCS.  Even their own scientists and researchers, along with many others agree that sugar, is sugar, is sugar, but market forces and the sale of their products is number one, whether containing sugar or sugar (HFCS), they have to maintain market share with their products.

Hopefully posts in the future will be much lighter, and less like a lecture, but we as farmers need to tell our story, talk about our farms, the products produced on our farms and what they become.   We have spent too long letting Oprah, Dr. Oz, HSUS, ASPCA, Farm Sanctuary, Michael Pollan and others tell our story.  Stand up and be heard.  I am going to whether anyone wishes to listen or not.

So, to my cousin’s wife, I am sorry for not saying that HFCS(corn sugar) can be bad, because in large quantities, which it is in our food today, it can be bad.  Although, sugar(cane and beet sugar) is equally as bad in large quantities. Most anything in this world consumed in a certain quantity can be lethal or have a negative effect on our health, even water in large quantities can be lethal.  Moderation is the key.

By the way, I would die for a Mountain Dew Throwback and a Butterfinger.  Can literally smell the Butterfinger just thinking about it.  It has been almost 10 years since I have had either!!!   Mmmmmm!!!