Boots on the Ground: My #FarmFoodTour Experience

I believe in activism. I believe in standing up. I believe in speaking out. Power. To. Da. People.

What I don’t believe in? Slacktivism. That is, the act of sharing and shaming online without actually doing your homework or better yet, getting your hands dirty. Getting involved. Getting your boots on the ground.

I was recently invited to do just that when I went on the #FarmFoodTour, sponsored by Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansas Soybean Commission. It was a three-day trek from Kansas City all the way to Scott City and back again to tour various elements of our agriculture landscape. While I’ve grown up in a farm community and have written for ag publications for several years, there’s SO much I have to learn. And more importantly, I wanted to see for myself, is our food supply as threatened as many online food activists claim? I respect their desire to improve our health, but often question their approach. “Big ag” is blasted as the enemy, but no farmers I personally know seem like the type to intentionally poison our food supply. There seems to be a disconnect between those doing the work and those spreading the word that we’re all going to hell in a GMO-filled hand basket.

When she learned of my upcoming trip, one friend asked if the trip was funded by Monsanto. I told her I honestly didn’t know, but I was fairly certain there’s at least some level of interaction, if not involvement. After all, they’re a big-ag company (you thought I was going to say big-somehting-else didn’t you?). She then jokingly said, “So you’re dancing with the devil?” I told her that while I’ve read many online articles about their questionable practices, I was heading into the trip with an open mind, ready to ask honest questions and learn from those on the front lines of producing our food supply. As it turns out, I didn’t really learn anything about Monsanto, but I did learn a LOT about what’s happening on the farms, dairies and feed yards of our great state.

I was unable to attend on the first day of the tour, which was unfortunate as I would have loved to see Good Pork Farm in Olsburg, the Forshee’s farm, and Sawyer Land and Cattle. I met up with the group that night and I just have to say, I’ve never had quite such a warm welcome as I did by the women who organized this event. Every email, text and interaction leading up to when we met in person helped set my anxious mind at ease, and I’d like to give a special shoutout to my gal Jancey of the Kansas Soybean Commission who graciously gave me her extra contact solution when I frantically messaged the group after 10 p.m.  “I have all of the solutions.” Yes, yes you did Jancey and I love you for it.

Making friends at @forgetmenotfarms on the #farmfoodtour #cowsofinstagram #dairy

A photo posted by Cat Poland (@catpoland) on

We boarded a bus (our driver, Howard, with Agenda:USA was phenomenal) and headed from McPherson west to Cimarron. Forget-Me-Not Farms was our first destination. Around my neck of the woods, dairies aren’t uncommon, but I’d never actually toured one before, especially not one this large.  I was thoroughly impressed by the sophistication, logistics and overall cleanliness of the entire operation. It actually hurt my head a little to consider all of the moving parts and pieces that have to fall into place to make it all work. It’s 24/7, 365, non-stop cow feeding, milking, and managing. This family farm supports a LOT of people, I want to say more than 250 when you consider all of the employees and their families.  One thing I learned at this dairy is that their milk is tested three times for antibiotics before it leaves in the truck. Three times. And I didn’t even realize that it’s not legal for any dairy company to have antibiotics in their milk. How did I not know this? I guess I thought it was “special” when milk was labeled “antibiotic free” when really it’s just a marketing gimmick. Silly me. Now, I’ve heard recently that farmers are finding “FDA loopholes” and getting around regulations to include antibiotics in their milk. So I looked into it. And I found out that sure enough in a recent random sample of 2,000 dairy farms, illegal use of antibiotics was discovered.

Now, before we all freak out, let’s dig a little deeper. How many dairies are breaking the law? As it turns out, only .04 to one percent. That’s right. Ninety nine percent of the dairies tested are following the rules. Hooray, right? Only, this was the article’s headline: “FDA Tests Turn Up Dairy Farmers Breaking The Law On Antibiotics.” Is this headline dishonest? No. But misleading? I think so. We’re a society of skimmers, and if one were to only read that and a portion of the article, they’d come away with the impression we have a huge problem on our hands. That’s udder nonsense. (See what I did there?) 

Now, let’s talk about that other thing we all look for on dairy labels. Hormones. According to livestrong.com (I know, probably not the best source on doping, I mean, hormones): “Bovine growth hormone, or BGH, is another term for bovine somatotropin, or BST. This growth hormone comes from the pituitary gland of cows, and it has a similar function and structure to growth hormones in other species of mammals. Bovine growth hormone is essential for cow growth and development. BGH from cows gets into their milk, and all milk, including organic milk and milk with no added hormones, contains some BGH, according to the Food and Drug Administration.” 

So now that we’ve all come to terms with the fact that dairy products will contain some form of hormone, let’s talk about rBGH, or rBST, synthetic hormones produced by companies (like Monsanto, according to this article). Is it good, is it bad? I’m not a scientist or health expert, so all I can tell you is what I learned. Forget-Me-Not Dairy chooses not to use it on their cows, as they feel it’s not the best thing for them, but other dairies do use it, so check the label if it’s something you want to avoid. I have enough problems with my own hormones not being regulated, so I opt to not consume these products if possible. Now let’s moooove on to the next destination. (These puns! I just can’t help myself!)

 

As we drove on from the dairy to our next destination at Reeve Cattle Company in Garden City, I couldn’t help but feel my anxiety kick in a little. A feed lot, really? The big, bad, scary, smelly places where cows go to die? Well, I guess they go to the beef-packing plant to die, but this is where they’re fattened up and held until their time comes. But here’s the thing. If we’re going to choose to eat meat, we need to face the realities of what it takes to produce the amount of animals we’re choosing to consume in this nation. In my family, we mostly eat meat we kill ourselves or meat we raise ourselves, but that’s not logistically or economically feasible for most Americans.  In all reality, my family is privileged, and I think a lot of us need to realize what our privilege allows us before spouting off about what’s moral and ethical for all of those who don’t have it as good as we do.

I have to say, although I entered the feed lot with an open mind, I came away pleasantly surprised. It didn’t smell nearly as bad as I imagined it would, and the staff there was far more caring and infinitely more intelligent than I had imagined. (Yes, embarrassingly I’ll admit I had some inaccurate prejudices). They take great care in ensuring that their animals are healthy and properly fed. Sure, I’d love for all beef cows to live on green pastures and be “wined and dined” with beer and sake and given deep-tissues massages before they’re slaughtered, but we all can’t afford Kobe beef. I do personally feel that the American diet is far too meat-focused, but we’re also too sedentary, and nobody’s trying to shut Netflix down for promoting a binge-watching culture. Nobody’s forcing anyone to eat meat, and if you choose to purchase your meat from locally-owned grass-fed farms, or go out and kill our own dinner and eat wild venison, more power to you. But for those who choose “conventional” beef, I certainly felt that our food supply is as protected by these producers as possible.

Back to my earlier point about “slacktivism,” I learned something new while at Reeve Cattle Company. Remember the whole “pink slime” debacle from a few years ago? Video surfaced of oozy, gooey stuff squirting from manufacturing equipment and everyone lost their collective minds. I know I did. I’m sure I was one to click, comment and share the heck out of those posts. I hadn’t really given it any thought until Lee Reeve began talking about what can happen when consumers pick up their online pitchforks without further contemplation. Do you even know what pink slime is? I really didn’t. It just sounded gross. I’m not sure what I thought it was, but I didn’t realize it was “low-grade beef trimmings and other meat by-products such as cartilage, connective tissue, and sinew. The resulting product is exposed to ammonia gas or citric acid to kill bacteria.” (Thanks Wikipedia). So are ammonia and citric acid safe? See here (ammonia) and here (citric acid). I mean, it seems like applying a chemical to our foods isn’t healthy or safe, but when you consider the alternative, you’d probably take the chemical any day. It’s called E-coli. I personally know of two families whose lives have been devastated by this little organism.

So really, “pink slime” is a way to safely use up every last bit of these animals we claim to care so much about, and yet, when it was suddenly and vehemently rejected by consumers, a lot of people lost their jobs when manufacturing plants shut down, and a perfectly good product was wasted. Food waste? Is that what we want? At a time when we need to be conserving resources as much as possible? No. So if you want to buy your beef whole and grind it yourself to ensure no pink slime passes your pink lips, that’s wonderful. But maybe, like me, you need to be better educated on just what it is you’re rejecting and think twice before economically damaging an entire industry just because something “sounds scary.”

 

Speaking of conserving resources, I was curious to learn what Reeve Cattle Company thought of a recent National Geographic article which highlighted big ag’s role in draining the Ogalalla Aquifer.  While Lee Reeve didn’t think the most recent article was entirely accurate, he did emphasize that they’re making efforts to conserve water as much as possible, all while trying to run a successful business. I was impressed by a white board I saw in our meeting room, on which was sketched the business’ strategy for several water-conserving techniques. It’s not going to be an easy process to undo the damage that’s been done, but all hope isn’t lost.

Producers who acknowledge their role and make steps to improve the situation for the overall good should be commended. For example, one highlight from the Nat Geo article was this: “In an effort to narrow the gap between water withdrawal and recharge, 70 farmers around the tiny town of Hoxie have done what no political leader in Kansas has dared—they required irrigation be cut back to conserve water. In 2013, the farmers set up a 99-square-mile conservation zone, where they agreed to a 20 percent reduction in irrigation for five years. It is the first such zone in Kansas, and setting it up wasn’t easy. “Nobody is willing to stick their neck out,” says Mitch Baalman, a fourth-generation farmer and leader of the conservation effort. “We had to change the culture. We took water for granted,” he says. “You didn’t talk about it. It was a taboo subject, and as we had these meetings and got to talking about it, people said, ‘Our wells are dropping off too.’” Wow. Talk about self sacrifice. But then again, I found a lot of that on the tour.

After a wonderful stay at seriously-the-nicest-hotel-I’ve-stayed-in, we drove from Garden City to Scott City to tour a sorghum production facility. And if I thought I was surprised by how high-class our western-Kansas hotel was, I was even more blown away by the world-class food technology and quality at Nu Life Market. Wow. This allergen-free foodie’s paradise is a state-of-the-art business that  delivers nutritious products free of gluten, dairy, soy and nuts, all nuts. From field selection, to grain production to milling to packaging, consumer safety is the main focus. But I must say, while I appreciate all the effort they go through to keep allergens out of their products, I was the most impressed by the taste alone.

We were treated to a tasty lunch of Greek Sorghum Bowl with Olives (using pearled sorghum sort of like couscous), chicken lettuce wrap, fruit salad, and most importantly, that heavenly Italian Creme Cake. The flavor was amazing but the texture was even better. The sorghum floor produced a moist, dense dessert that left me wanting more (and more and more and more). Nu Life produces a variety of products, including those mentioned like pearled sorghum and sorghum flour, but also pizza crust, popped sorghum, and sunflower spread (produced by sister company Sun Life). We don’t have any peanut allergies in our family, but I’ll definitely be purchasing more of this creamy, yummy stuff. My oldest daughter isn’t a fan of peanut butter, but I think she’d eat this stuff by the bucket. 

After leaving Scott City, we made a LONG cross-state trek to Topeka. (I really enjoyed getting to know fellow blogger Wanda Lopez during these many hours on the bus, and even ended up ordering a handmade handbag from her Etsy site. Check out her stuff. You won’t be sorry.) Just east of Topeka, our bus turned down a winding dirt road and finally parked in a partially harvested cornfield at Winsor Family Farms.  LaVell Winsor was along for the ride with us, so I’d already gotten to know her before we stopped at her third-generation family farm. She’s a wealth of knowledge considering all things farming, especially considering that she has experience with everything from farm software to farm finance. She’s also a volunteer with CommonGround, which facilitates dialogue between farmers and consumers.

As the sun gently set on the beautiful riverbank flanked field, we were treated to an All-American spread on the back of a flatbed trailer. Heirloom quilts were spread, and no amount of hospitality was spared. Homemade pie and apple cider rounded out the evening, and we learned even more about sustainable farming practices from this operation, who recently earned the 2016 National Conservation Legacy Award from the American Soybean Association. 

 

Oh my gosh! My little soil collector will LOVE this book from @ksfarmbureau! #farmfoodtour

A photo posted by Cat Poland (@catpoland) on

And as we rode off into the sunset from our final farm (quite literally), I was exhausted and yet energized all at the same time. I learned more about the business and beauty of agriculture in those two short days than I had in years of living and working in a farm town. Nothing can replace getting your hands dirty. Nothing can replace sowing your own seeds and growing your own food if nothing more than to have a better perspective for what it takes to feed our nation. Farming is hard, hard work. That’s why my husband and I are starting an orchard and garden on our land this year. We could just as easily purchase our food, but we want our children to know how much work is involved. May they learn to never take their food for granted. And may they learn to put their boots on the ground.

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