Ask a Farmer: Women in Agriculture

Ask a Farmer: Women in Agriculture


SUSAN EVANS McCLURE:
Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the National Museum
of American History and to our “Ask a Farmer” program
today on the Wallace H. Coulter Performance Plaza. My name is Susan Evans McClure,
I’m the Program Director of our Smithsonian Food History
Programs here at the museum. Hi guys! Come on over! You can join us,
plenty of space. Here at the museum we explore
American history through what we eat, what we cook,
and how it’s grown through programs year-round in the
museum and we’re thrilled today to have an amazing panel
with us to talk about the very big topic of
women in agriculture. And we hope you as our audience
will join the conversation. We’ll be taking lots
of questions today, it is called “Ask a Farmer” so
you’ll be doing the asking. But we also hope you’ll join
the conversation online using the hashtag Smithsonian Food. This is the first of a
miniseries we’re doing here of three panels over the next
few months so we hope that you’ll come back over your
lunch break next month and in September. We’ll be talking about
multigenerational family farms in August on August 5th and
then on September 16th we’ll be discussing Latinos in
American agricultural history. I especially want to thank our
supporters who are making this series possible: the U.S.
Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. And a special thanks to our
supporters John Deere for making agricultural programming
possible at the museum. And now, on to our
panelists for today. Val Wagner, to my left, is a
North Dakota farmer and mother of four boys who grows corn,
soybeans, wheat, alfalfa and raises beef cattle
on her family farm. Rachel Gray, to her left, is a
Minnesota farmer born and raised on a dairy farm. Rachel is the mother of two
boys and she taught school for 15 years before
transitioning to ownership of her family’s cow-calf
black Angus operation. Vanessa Kummer is a North Dakota
farmer with over 35 years of farming experience. With the help of her husband
Paul and her son Blaine, the family farms soybeans,
corn, wheat, and sugar beets. And Vanessa was also the
first woman to chair the United Soybean Board in 2012
in the history of the United Soybean Board. And to her left is Morgan Kontz
who is a South Dakota farmer who earned a degree in
agricultural education but, as she will tell us, never
actually lived or worked on a farm until she
met her husband and now lives a farm life. Together with her family they
farm 3,000 acres of corn, soybeans, and alfalfa and
manage a cow-calf herd and beef feedlot. So we have some very
accomplished people here with very different backgrounds
who are all working in agriculture today. So Rachel, I’m actually going
to ask you to start us off. Can you just tell us about your
farm and your role on the farm? RACHEL GRAY: Sure. I grew up on our farm, my
great-grandfather started our farm, and made a transition. I decided to stop teaching and
moved back to the farm, and eventually that
transitioned into taking over and completely buying out
my mom and dad. So I’m the sole
owner right now. My husband works overseas so
he’s not a farmer and doesn’t, kind of, have anything to do
with the farming that way, he supports it. We still have 15 people that
live on our farm so me being the owner and manager of that
farm, I’m in different ways responsible for all of those
15 people including my three great-aunts that are in their
nineties and love that they live in their own home but it takes
a lot to care for them also. So that’s kind of our picture. We have, like I said, 3,000
acres and we run about 300 head of beef cattle so it’s
a cow-calf operation. So it does take a lot of help. There are 15 people that
live there but five of us work there full time. SUSAN: Great. So then Val, what is, on your
farm what is your role and is it different or how is it different
than Rachel’s experience? VAL WAGNER: On our farm,
well I grew up on a farm. Thought I was going to move away
from the farm, wasn’t interested in rural life, moved away
for a little while and decided that definitely
wasn’t a fit for me. So came back,
met my husband. We have four boys, ages 14 to
seven, and so my role has really evolved over the last four years
from caretaking, raising young kids to kind of fitting in
wherever, whatever is needed on the farm, whether it be driving
trucks or running a combine or just driving the tractor,
kind of fitting in, filling in those blanks. So on our farm we raise cattle
as well as crops and, so, my role right now has been
like the night checks when we’re calving when the cows
are having their calves. SUSAN: Can you explain
what a night check is? VAL: Well a night check
is, since we’re, I’m from North Dakota, we
calve in February which, the temperatures
is usually low… SUSAN: Calving means? VAL: Having a cow. The cow is having a calf. So when they’re having their
babies it’s usually in February when it’s really cold outside,
we’re talking minus 20, wind chills that are
really, really cold so when a calf is born,
it’s wet. And so we try to have all
our cows have their babies in the barn so that they
can stay dry and that they don’t get
chilled or too cold. And so we have to check the cows
which means walking through them and seeing which ones look like
they’re going to possibly be having a calf to make sure that
they have their calves inside instead of outside, because
a wet calf, it gets, you know it can kill a
calf if it gets too cold. So that’s kind of my
responsibility during those months is to go out every two
hours and walk through them and check and see if anybody’s
showing any signs of, you look for things like whether
or not the cow’s restless, different things like that. So that’s kind of my job. SUSAN: Now, Vanessa, you have
been in farming for 35 years and can you talk about what your
role is on the farm and how you’ve seen your role
changing as a woman working in agriculture in your career? VANESSA KUMMER: Well, it’s
actually been almost 38, 39 years now because I
basically started farming when I got married. Working in town just wasn’t
that great of a paying job and plus I wanted to be around
the farm and be actually a part of the physical activity
of the farm every day. So from the very beginning I
have done a lot of the planting of the crops, so that has
evolved to a wonderfully less heavy lifting type of
a job to more of a sitting in a tractor and pushing
buttons type of a job. When I first started I had
to load things by myself and they would be, like, either
50, 60 pound bags of corn or soybeans and you would take
them and you would dump them in each individual
row of your planter. Well, now I back the planter up,
somebody on the ground puts the auger in and they auger my
seed right into my planter. So that’s definitely
gotten better. We have Global Positioning
Satellite technology so when I get to a field and
get everything opened up I make my turn, I push a couple
of buttons to make sure that the planter has gone down
and that the driving, that the steering part is taking
over, and then I keep my hands off the steering wheel and follow the line exactly as I have, up and down the
field, all day long. And we have the same technology
when I’m combining soybeans which makes it very nice. When you’re combining soybeans
you have a 35 foot header out in front of you and you’re
trying to watch both edges of it to make sure that you’re not
skipping, or that you’re not, you know, going over
10 or 15 feet of what you’ve already combined. SUSAN: Can you explain
what combining means? That word? VANESSA: Combining is
our way of harvesting. In the old days it was
thrashing, but a combine is a self-propelled machine that
brings the crop into the front and ends up with the seed in the
tank of the combine and the rest of it, the grass, the leaf
material, the stalk material all gets just chewed up and shot out
the back end and gets scattered over the field again so that
it’s organic material for the next year. So it’s our way of harvesting
our crops and bringing in just the seeds. SUSAN: Great. So now Morgan you did
not grow up on a farm, but now you live on a farm
and have a farm life, so can you talk about what your
role is on your family farm? MORGAN KONTZ: Sure, yeah,
so I have a pretty different background from the other three
panelists since I did not grow up on a farm, did not grow
up in agriculture in any way other than 4-H and FFA which
are both youth organizations and I had the opportunities
there to show animals and be a part of a little
bit of agriculture. I decided to go to college
for agricultural education and my family was like, “I don’t even know where
you got that from, you’re not, we don’t
do any of that,” so it was kind of
a shock to them but when I married my husband
I moved to South Dakota and we farm now
as a family, there are now
eight of us, well eight adults I should
say, and nine children. So we farm corn and soybeans
and alfalfa and then we finish beef cattle. We also breed them, we have
babies and then we feed them through the whole process
from the time they’re born until the time that
they’re processed. And through the years my role
on the farm has changed and think it’s a lot
like maybe all of you, we all go through
seasons of life and whether we have young
children, older children, new jobs, and that’s a lot
of what my life is right now. I have two small children,
they’re four and 16 months so I’m in a whole
new season of life and right now I am playing
the mom card a lot more than I used to play
the farmer card. Before we had kids I was there
every day with my husband working alongside him whether it
was driving trucks, helping in the field, or even something
as simple as preparing meals. And now I still do a lot of
those things but the kids get to come along too and it takes
me about three times as long. [laughs] SUSAN: So it sounds like some of
the roles you’re talking about are, you know, you’re the ones
out there driving the tractors, working the combines. Do you think in your
experiences, have you experienced personally
any kind of gender gap being a woman working
in agriculture? Vanessa, I see you
chuckling over there! VANESSA: There’s definitely a
gap as far as perception, is probably one of
the worst things. When it comes to me if I want
to go to the dealer and buy something or if I want to
talk to the seed dealers there’s not really a gap there,
but especially when I first was on the farm we had different
times when, for one example, I was planting corn behind
our yard and this pickup is following me down the
field and I’m thinking, “OK, I don’t know why this pickup
is following in my field,” but when I got to the end I got
out and the gentleman got out of his pickup and he said,
“Well, I’m from the local dealership and I
need to find your husband because I need to get a check
for the piece of equipment you bought last week.” And I said, “Well, my
husband is 15 miles south, in a different field,
because he really didn’t ask me for anything, right? He asked me where
my husband was. Well I’m the one who writes
the checks on our farm — MORGAN: And that’s what they
forget — we do a lot of the check writing, they do they
do a lot of the buying, but we do a lot of
the paying. [laughter] VANESSA: So he drove down and
talked to my husband and my husband looked at him like
he was an idiot and he said, “Vanessa writes all the
checks so if you ever want to get paid for
anything on this farm, you better be talking
to her, not me.” So it takes a little bit of
teaching other people about what you do and how
your operation works. We had to go through this
with different bankers, where I would call in
and say we need this and that and they would say “Well,
what does Paul want?” Well, Paul wants me to take
care of this business because he’s over doing something else
so we need to make sure that you understand that I am the
person that can call in and take care of
these things. And there’s one more example
that’s even more devastating really, and that
was the government. When it came to the ASCS, is
what it was called back then, the Agricultural
Stabilization Service, they actually sent me a
letter one time that said I was not a person. And being a “person” under
the Farm Bill laws meant that you were a person that was
active in the farm and that if there were anything, like crop
payments or something that were due to you under the Farm Bill,
that you were a person that could participate. Well at that time, if you were a
woman, unless you had a separate line of credit, separate field,
separate line of machinery, everything completely
separate from your husband, you couldn’t be a person. And so my brother-in-law
could be a person, even if he had nothing,
but I couldn’t be. So I did finally get a letter,
I am now a person, at the age of 50 I turned into a person and
I was pretty happy about that! [laughs] SUSAN: And, go ahead Rachel. RACHEL: I think, in kind
of going with that, when I was — first of all,
I was very blessed because I grew up in a family where
we were farming and my grandmother farmed in the
fields, she was on the tractor, my mother was on the tractor,
and my dad was amazing at always encouraging
myself and saying, “You can do anything
you want to do. If you want to drive that
tractor, you go ahead.” And so I started at eight
years old raking hay. And always, I was
always in the field. And never knew that there
was an issue with it. And when I went to do
the transition and buy my mom and dad’s farm
I went to get a loan. And many people don’t realize
it because of what Vanessa went through with her paperwork,
they’ve now changed that, except that as a
woman farmer I’m considered socially disadvantaged. And so when you sign
those papers you sign as a socially
disadvantaged person. SUSAN: So how does that work
for you, is there like a box you have to check,
is it on the forms? RACHEL: There is a box that
you check on those forms and you say, and it’s all
due to your gender. We have that because of
what Vanessa went through. And when I was talking about
coming here I said to my mom, “I’m not sure why they worry
about if I’m a woman or not because to me
I’m just a farmer. I’ve always been a farmer.” And she said, “That’s
because, years ago,” she said, “I couldn’t sign
the papers. I couldn’t get the payment. I couldn’t go to the bank.” And she said, “Enough
of us have come forward and said we are farmers
too,” and she said, “You need to go and you
need to talk about that because it is an issue.” VAL: I think that sometimes,
too, as women on the farm, especially my mother, my
grandmother, a lot of times they downplayed their role on
the farm whether it be supplying the meal, taking care of the
children, arranging for vehicles to get from point A to
point B, or if it’s being in the farmyard, being down in
the barn with the cattle or anything like that, a lot of
times they just downplayed their role because they
didn’t see themselves as the head of the household,
they didn’t see themselves as the face
of the farm. And now we’re able to stand up
and say, “Look, I’m just, my role is just as important. It may be different but
it’s the same as — without what we do, the
farm won’t exist either.” SUSAN: Great. So how do you see this
continuing to change in the future as new
generations move into farming, how do you think the role of
women will continue to change? RACHEL: I think it’s changed
because I see more young girls wanting to come into
agriculture, and maybe not production agriculture, it might
be they become ag teachers or they see it as another viable
avenue to a science degree, you know maybe they work for
an ag company that needs a scientist or
things like that. But more than that, I see
the change in my sons. My kids have no idea that
there’s not, that there was a time period when a woman
wouldn’t identify as a farmer. To them it’s just completely the
way it is, it’s very natural. So I see that change maybe
even as a generational gap more than a gender gap. MORGAN: I would agree,
generational gap definitely, just because I have really
young children so I come — I’m younger than these women
up here, they have so much more experience than I do, but
when I went to college for the School of Agriculture there
were lots of girls and I live in a generation now where
there are so much more women and it’s changed drastically
from the time that we’re worried about being socially
disadvantaged to the time now where I am making decisions
and my husband relies on the decisions that I
make for our farm. VANESSA: I think one other thing
is that the government is now getting more real about women
and their activities on a farm. You know it’s like they’ve
discovered that women are farming. And so the numbers
before were very low. I think the numbers that
they will show as far as in the census of women who
are farming and who are actively farming will grow just
because they have now started to count us
differently. When we used to send in
the census forms you could only send in that one
of you was the farmer. Well, you know, of course
it’s my husband, you know it’s a lot easier if I just
sign everything like that, but the government is now
saying, “OK, we actually need to count who is out there on
these farms, not just say that one person on the farm is
what we’re going to count.” MORGAN: And like
Val said it — I always tell, we have, you
know, with nine kids between all our families, a lot of times
some of the younger kids, “Well I don’t want to do that
job, that’s the worst job ever.” You know, there’s not grunt work
on a farm, there’s a job that has to get done and it doesn’t
matter how small or big that job is, you might be in the combine
one day, calling all the shots, you might be the person
that’s preparing sandwiches for your family and
for the hired help and making sure the kids
get shuttled around. There’s no small job, there’s no
grunt work, it’s all work that has to get done no matter who
does it be it female or male. VAL: To me, personally, one of
the things looking to the future that I’m more concerned about
as opposed to a gender gap is the generation gap. Having new farmers come in,
the younger people seeing their value on the farm and what they
can do and making agriculture their livelihood. I don’t think your gender, that
whether you’re male or female, is going to matter anymore. It’s going to be, do we have
enough people out there actually physically doing the work so
that we can continue to support those people who are at the
grocery store buying the products that we work
to put on the table. SUSAN: And the statistics today
are that about two percent of the population is involved
in agriculture on some way, and that percentage is on
the closer side of fifties, sixties, rather than
twenties, thirties. RACHEL: Right, that’s one
thing I see on my farm is a labor issue. It is very hard to find someone
to work that will work the hours that I work, that will
stay as long as I stay, and will work as
hard as we do. MORGAN: And they’re
invest — someone one that’s invested in it
as much as you are. RACHEL: And also someone
that has the skill set. I can find people that can drive
heavy equipment all day long. But it’s finding someone
that can care for cattle, drive heavy equipment,
do the math, the science, everything else that I need,
and I need that in one person that works relatively cheap,
and that’s very hard. SUSAN: Yeah. So how would you
solve that problem? If you could make some changes,
what would you do to fix that? RACHEL: To be honest, most
of our labor force comes from family and comes from expanding
in directions that I can accommodate my own children
if they choose to stay, and right now they have. And to make — to be able to
expand and be visionary enough to expand our farm
to accommodate multiple generations. And I think as a farmer that’s
what I see, is that I have to be sustainable enough to
accommodate four to five generations beyond me. VANESSA: It also takes making
sure that you put in programs in place on your farm that teaches
what’s needed to be done. Because when my son goes out
and does the spraying, he is, you know, it’s very fast, it’s
very enclosed, and you need, he’s got a trailer where
everything is set up. And you’re working with a
quarter of an ounce of chemical, or an ounce of chemical, and
then however many gallons of water, and you’re mixing it
together within this trailer and then a hose takes it out
to the sprayer as it mixes. And so the person in there needs
to understand about ounces and about gallons and about, you
know, they need to be able to convert things for, “OK, one
quarter of an ounce per acre,” and he can spray 200 acres
with this load, “How do I have to do that?” And so it’s having someone who
has the capacity to do the math, and then to be planning ahead
enough so that once that sprayer is full and going off he’s
not standing there smoking a cigarette, relaxing, he’s
getting everything ready for the next batch because it doesn’t
take very long to get that 200 acres sprayed and then
come back for a refill. SUSAN: Any solutions, Val,
you looked like you were going to share a solution. VAL: For me, especially,
I have four young boys, and so automatically you start
to think next generation, how do I prepare? I want to make sure that their
needs are met as far as if the farm is not something they
want to do that they have those opportunities as well, but I
also want to make sure that if all four want to come back to
farm that we have room for them in the operation to do so. Because hopefully they’ll
also bring families, and different
things like that. So you really have to look at
how to, it’s not about planting next year’s crop, it’s about
planning for the future. It’s the same as, we may be a
farm but we’re still a business, just like any business
that’s on Main Street. So we have to make those
preparations well enough in advance so that there isn’t
the growing pain part of it where people don’t know,
like my sons won’t know what their place is on the farm
and make sure their desires and their niches are met. Like if one is more passionate
about cattle, that they’re able to come in and work with
the herd, and if one is more passionate about the
mechanics of it all, it’s not just blue-collar work, there’s
a lot of numbers to it, too. You need someone who’s good
with understanding finances and understanding marketing and
there’s so many nuances. You know a farmer doesn’t just
plant a crop, a farmer has so many hats that they wear now
that you really have to be able to nurture that and help them
discover their own way on the farm. RACHEL: One thing that we’ve
done and started a program with, having been a teacher I kind
of looked at the labor force in general and I thought there’s
a lot of young kids in our town that maybe want a job and they
can’t handle all the big jobs but they can handle some
smaller jobs on the farm. So I have three 14,
15-year-old kids hired, and they do small jobs. And it might be
the “go-fer” jobs. They’re marking fence lines
with wildlife markers or maybe they’re mowing lawn or
those kinds of things. And as they get better,
and as I kind of see, “Oh, this kid really likes to
feed grain to the cattle,” so I kind of moved
him into that. And they’re there
two days a week. And one boy already came to me
and he said, “I start football next week, but,” he said, “can
I work again next summer?” And so kind of a training
program for kids. And we do an
interview process and we have to talk to their parents and we do that. That really has helped
with those smaller jobs that are hard to get done. It’s hard to mow
five lawns, you know? MORGAN: Absolutely. SUSAN: Great. So we do want to make
sure we leave enough time to turn it over
to the audience. Katharine, can you
wave your hand? She is back there and
has a microphone, so if anyone has a question
we would love to hear it, and our panel would love to
take a stab at answering it. So I think we have
one right up front.>>Two right up front. AUDIENCE MEMBER: Oh, hi, I got
here a little bit late so maybe you talked about all this before
I sat down, but let’s say you were, you know, a member
of the next generation and you had a choice of,
let’s say, of going to school and majoring in computer science
starting up some kind of, you know, one of those little
companies and making a lot of money or if you had a choice
of going to Hollywood and becoming a movie star or if you
had a choice of being a farmer, why would you choose
to be the farmer? And I’m asking that with
prejudice, I’m a city person. SUSAN: OK so I think
the question is why, with all of the choices in the
world, and all of the hard jobs you just spent 20 minutes
talking about, why would you choose to be a farmer? And I’m going to add both for
the next generation and for you all personally, why do you make
that choice and stay with it? MORGAN: I think that,
especially not coming from any type of agriculture background,
I grew up in a completely different world, and for
me I just fell in love with everything about agriculture. I fell in love with the fact
that it’s always changing and I am always going to be
investing in something for my future and something
for my children’s future. And that’s why I continue to
stay in farming and agriculture is that I’m truly invested. And I’m not invested in the
fact of my children have to become farmers, I’m invested
in the sustainability of land and being able to give that
land to them or to give it to someone that will be just
as invested in it as I am. But also, too, when it comes
to preparing for the next generation, it isn’t always
about preparing a farmer. Everything we’re doing
on the farm now is, we’re creating contributing
members of society. My little children, they have
little chores that they do and the work ethic, we’re just
trying to instill those good values that every parent
tries to instill except we’re doing it
on the farm. VANESSA: Well I wanted to talk
to this from the aspect of a person who has a 36-year-old
son who is taking over our farm. And it was very interesting
because from the time that he was two years old you could
tell that he wanted to farm. And he’s very intelligent, my
mother-in-law used to say, “You know, this is just wrong. Blaine is too smart to farm.” She was from that generation where you still had, you know, either it was the oldest
child or the child who couldn’t go away because
he wasn’t smart enough to get those jobs
you’re talking about, so he had to be the one that
stayed behind and farmed. But with the technology, the
financing, and everything that’s happened over the last
40, 50 years, you need someone who’s going to be very
intelligent, and as they’ve said before, you know, they’re
handling marketing, marketing is a terribly involved and
difficult job to do on a farm when the markets move
the way they do nowadays. They have to do the finances: my
son is able to go in and figure out, “OK, this loan for how many
years at which percent would be better than that loan at,
you know,” so he’s constantly working out the different
finance options of things. But he loves farming and
it’s always been in his mind to be in agriculture,
but to be the owner. So I think that’s maybe
where the difference is. You know, you can build
things or you can go work for a finance company and make, you
know, which is not easy money but it’s guaranteed
money, right? When you have a job that pays
you X number of dollars a year and this is your job. Farming is not nearly that
simple, but it’s exciting, it’s challenging every day
of your life, and you are
the owner. You are the one that is making
decisions, and if they go good or bad you see what’s
happening and you have that ownership over that. MORGAN: I don’t think I’ve ever
met a farmer that doesn’t love his job. RACHEL: Love it. MORGAN: Or love her job. They get to do
their hobby every day. Little boys that play with
trucks and tractors, they grow up to play with
bigger trucks and tractors. RACHEL: Coming from a teaching
background, I always had a side of me that wanted
to be an entrepreneur. And I always wanted to
go back to the farm. But what my dad had said is,
“get a degree in something so you have something to fall
back on if this goes south.” And it never has, but
it’s a passion. I can’t even explain it. It is a desire that pulls
you home and it’s a passion. It, when they say it
gets in your blood it really, really does. I can’t imagine living
or working anywhere else. VAL: And even on the roughest
days where machinery has broken down, you’ve
been stuck 100 times, animals that may have died that
you worked hours and hours on and tirelessly to try to take care of whatever issue they may have had and it just didn’t work out in the end, at the end of the day when
you lay your head down, and it may have been the
first chance you had to sleep in 24 hours, you just,
it’s just this calming effect. Because you know that what
you’re doing is making a difference and that, you just,
you are where you belong. You’re at home. And I think a lot of
times even when people who have office jobs,
or work in Hollywood, they do it for
the same reasons. That’s what their
passion is. That’s, if you’re not doing
what makes you happy, you should be looking
for a career elsewhere. And every morning I wake
up just grateful that I’ve had this opportunity and
grateful that I did decide to come back to the farm. SUSAN: Another question
right in front. AUDIENCE MEMBER: I grew up in
a farming community as well, Stockton California,
Central Valley, and what we’ve seen a
lot in that area is that there’s a sort of a change
in what’s being planted. So now because we’re so close
to Napa and Sonoma and, we always grew grapes
in the area but now what you see is
vineyards everywhere. And my mom made a comment
the other day that, “yeah we’ll all be able to drink
wine and that’ll be great, but there won’t be any food
to eat,” so I’m wondering, just asking you all, do you
see a tension in that? Obviously they’re growing grapes
because it’s very profitable for them, but is that to the
detriment of something else or do you see that there is just
a lot of room in the market for changes? MORGAN: I think that
they are making the best business
decision for themselves. RACHEL: Yes. MORGAN: And like, I believe
you might have said, we are a family farm but
we’re also a business, too. And they might be a family farm
but they are definitely looking at the land around them,
the market around them, and they are investing in
that with those grapes. RACHEL: I think the key to those
kinds of things is the market. In Northern Minnesota years ago
there were a lot of dairy farms, and I grew up on one. As that dairy farm market
changed, as shipping changed and we had to move our milk farther
away we could not afford to stay in dairy. And so that’s when
we changed to beef. We chose to change to beef
cattle and make our entire dairy operation into a
rotational grazing operation. And what that means is that the
cattle essentially mob graze, or intensively graze in
pastures three days at a time and then move through
this 3,000 acre area. Other farms around us chose
to go to corn and soybeans because that made sense for
their business decision. So I think it
boils down to that. It boils down to every
farmer’s business decision. Do I see that being
a problem with food? No, I don’t. I think that the farmers are
producing more food than we ever have with less inputs
and with less people farming. And we’re able to do that
because of science and technology. VAL: The technology behind
farming is so amazing now, where we can grow crops,
where, not only where crops didn’t grow before,
but it’s a better crop. And so we’re able to get
more food off the same amount of land. And so to watch some of that
happen has been, just, even in my lifetime, has
been almost breathtaking. Because although the market does
change and people decide to farm other things, whether it be,
I will say in North Dakota we don’t have a lot of vineyards
[laughter] but there are some people who are doing some
of those niche markets and different things and if that
works for them, that’s great. MORGAN: We do have some
vineyards in South Dakota, actually. VANESSA: And in North Dakota. VAL: There are some. Not like in California, though. SUSAN: And wine is
produced in every state. VAL: And there, but there are
just some differences and you’ll notice, I know we notice
on our farm you’ll notice the demand changes and
different things like that. And so the market naturally
shifts back, no matter how some of those decisions play into it
there’s always that natural, you know it’s like pendulum,
it’ll come back center again. MORGAN: You never know, in 10
or 15 years you might see corn. SUSAN: So some of those
technological changes you mention, you talked about
changes in seed technology and GPS, and what do you think
is the technology that has changed more,
or did I leave one out? RACHEL: Well, I always say the
technology that has been best for me was the lithium battery
and the cordless impact wrench. [laughter] Because prior to that, I was
out there with the haybine and inevitably the guys would
put this haybine together, and a haybine is what cuts our
hay product and it has all of these rotating, kind of,
slinging knives and they break when they hit rocks. And so I would be in the
tractor and I would hit a rock and you’d have to
change a knife. And to change that knife you’d
have to get a socket set and a ratchet and I would always
have to carry a breaker bar so I’d put that on the ratchet and
try to break that nut loose. With the lithium batteries and
the cordless impact wrench, I am no longer standing on a
breaker bar in the middle of the field, jumping up and down
on it trying to get it loose. So that’s a small technology
that I appreciate. MORGAN: Yeah, we might
be using satellite, but the tool
investments — RACHEL: Yeah, I appreciate that
every time I’m cutting hay. SUSAN: Great, are there any
other questions in the audience? Yes, at that table
in the middle. AUDIENCE MEMBER: Very
interesting discussion, thank you all. I originally grew up on a farm
in southwest Minnesota but I’ve been away for a long
time and now live here in D.C. as an environmental
scientist focusing on soil. So I’m very interested in what
you are doing to increase the soil health. So for many years there were a
lot of chemical inputs that were going in and eroding the soil,
decreasing the soil health. What are you doing to
increase your soil health? SUSAN: So the question is
about soil and soil health and what you put in the soil or
what changes you’ve made to increase the health and
production of your soil. RACHEL: I’ll be really quick. As a rotational cattle grazer,
we are focused on soil health, we think that is our
biggest benefit is that when we have healthy soil. And so when we made that
transition from crops to rotational grazing we went
in, we put native grasses in, we put pollinator
plots in. Yearly soil samples
are taken. Our goal is to increase organic
matter in the soil and so our cattle move across the entire
farm both in the summer and in the winter just so we can
spread out that manure. So we’re using that as
fertilizer and really focusing on native plants,
both grasses and forbs that we use for our feed. And we find that that really
helps increase the soil, like I said the organic matter,
we get better water retention and all of those things
with our cattle. VAL: On our farm we
use an agronomist. We don’t have the
science knowledge, the science background, but we
understand — it’s kind of like an NBA player, an NFL player,
they’ve got the shoes, the pads, the equipment that they need,
having healthy soil is just as important
as our equipment. And so we have an agronomist
that comes and does soil testing to check and see where our
organic matter is at, what our levels are at, and
makes recommendations to us regarding what we may need to,
whether we need to look at adding a fertilizer, and since
we have cattle we have our own fertilizer for the most part,
or if there’s something else that our soil is lacking,
if there’s a recommendation as far as what our crop
rotation should be so we can naturally put some of those
nutrients back into the soil, or whatever else it may be. It’s kind of like our agronomist
is just as important to the farm as having a
pediatrician for my children. He’s the one that writes that
prescription that makes our soil healthier. SUSAN: And an agronomist
is an ag scientist? VAL: It’s basically an
agriculture scientist who has the background and the knowledge
to be able to look at those, they actually take samples in
various areas in our field, they take a probe on a pickup
and they go down and they drill a little bit of the soil out so
that they’re able to test it to see exactly what the
nutrient base is in the soil. It’s kind of like having
a blood test done at your doctor’s office,
except for our fields. SUSAN: Yeah. Vanessa, what were
you going to add? VANESSA: We have been, over the
last four decades there’s been a lot of changes, there’s
been changes in not only the seed technology,
chemical technology, and also the
machinery technology. And so we have been able to go
from where we’ve had to dig a lot of our fields to kill weeds,
other, you know, and cut back on the use of chemicals to where
we’re doing more of an either minimal-till or no-till and that
has been achieved by the fact that we have had genetically
engineered crops that can take less chemical and you can get
rid of all of the weeds at one time and then go in and, you
know, and plant your seeds and have a much easier way of not
having to go in and just dig and dig and dig and dig to
kill some of the weeds. We have had some very tough
fields in the past where once our crop, especially if our
soybean crop was up, say, this high, or even lower, if you
spray the wrong chemical on that you’re going to kill that
and you still were having a hard time controlling some of
the edge-of-the-field weeds. So now we’ve gotten those weeds
cleaned up over the last 10, 20 years and so we’re able to do
a little switching around as far as — a lot of what we do
is economically based, you know, so when we go in and spread
fertilizer we do the same thing. We do soil testing. If we want 150-bushel corn or
if we want 200-bushel corn, this is how much of
each fertilizer that you put
on this field. And that prescription goes
from field to field depending what crop you’re putting on,
depending on what that dirt is like already. And so we try to get a lot of,
you know, a lot of the trash is what we call it, it’s the
old plants from last year but we try to just basically
leave it in the field so it decays and adds
organic matter to the dirt. When we’ve had sugar
beets and then after, when you harvest sugar beets
you’ve got just black land. There is nothing out there. And so we have in the past also
planted like radishes, turnips, and other greens that you
go out there and plant. That keeps that land from
blowing over the winter and also adds, then,
that organic matter in. So there have been a lot
of developments over the last few years especially
of ground cover crops, making sure you’ve
got the right — enough nutrients that
you’re putting in. But we don’t want to put in
$1,000 worth of nitrogen onto our land when we only
would need, say, $400 worth of nitrogen, because the rest
of it’s just going to go away. So we make our decisions very
much based on what our field can use, what our plants can
use up, and what’s not going to leach away because
that’s no good for us. It’s just money down
the drain, literally. And so we very much
are very prescriptive about the chemicals,
the fertilizers, anything that we’re
putting onto our ground. SUSAN: Any other questions
from the audience? I think we have one
right over here. AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. So recently there’s been
a huge trend in non-GMOs. I’m wondering if that’s
affected any of your processes or changed your business trends
or any of your projections with what you do? SUSAN: So I think the question
is about the response to GMOs from a consumer perspective. There’s been a lot of information in the news about GMO labeling
including government bills around that being passed at
the state and national level. How is that response from
the public and response from researchers impacting your
decisions and have you made any changes? MORGAN: As a producer,
as a consumer, I am very
supportive of GMOs. And I think that’s mainly
because I’ve taken the time to really read about
what that can do. And what a GMO is, it’s
essentially taking a gene from one crop and it might be putting
it into another crop to develop those traits, things against
humidity, things against certain pests in the field, like she
was talking about the worms. But I think that what I foresee
is that another trend is also the price in the grocery store
is constantly going up and I get a lot of questions about that
and if I see GMO labeling happening in my future I
think that it’s just going to increase those costs for
you in the grocery store. And I think as consumers
you’re going to have to weigh out your options. Do you want to pay more or do
you really want that label when in all actuality it’s just about
making the best choice for you and it’s about — you know,
if you think you want to know if it’s non-GMO or GMO, you
just have to do the research. There’s only a handful of
actual crops that are genetically modified. VANESSA: And the genetics that
are changed are very specific and very proven,
very tested. MORGAN: There’s a huge process. At least, what, 15 to 20 years
before a trait is approved. VANESSA: And so they’re — when
they’re tested, they’re tested for allergenicity, they’re
tested for anything that would be toxic, they are tested for
all of these things before they’re ever
allowed to be planted. They’re tested by three
different government agencies along with the seed companies
or the chemical companies. So they have been
proven to be very safe. And back when, like I said,
when I was farming I had to put this toxic chemical on top of
the seed rather than having something within the seed
that does the defense itself. So that has helped out a lot
as far as what we’re putting into the ground. I’m no longer putting that toxic
chemical into the ground which helps me personally and
helps the flora, fauna, everything around us. MORGAN: Like on
our operation, she’s selling a
lot of her corn. We raise beef cattle so a lot
of the corn that we grow we’re feeding to our cattle. So for us it’s about having
a good nutritious product to give to our cattle. So a lot of our corn
doesn’t actually get sold. VAL: And you also have to
remember, too, a lot of times there’s a misconception about,
companies are determining what it is we
plant on the farm. And that decision is
actually made farm by farm. Nobody, there isn’t a company
that tells me what to plant, VANESSA: And field by field. VAL: there isn’t a company that
tells me which crop or which, you know, which
variety of that crop. There’s so many — it’s kind of
like planting a strawberry in a garden, you can plant, like,
an Ever-Bearing strawberry or you can plant the
big, gigantic, ginormous strawberries, or — it’s
not just a strawberry. You have a whole lot of
decisions to make. And the same thing
goes with farming. Like, when we plant a wheat
crop, there’s not a GMO wheat. And so our wheat crop, though,
we decide what variety we want to plant. So whether it, you know, it
ripens in a shorter amount of time, or if it tends to be
more drought resistant, if it looks like our weather
pattern is changing, you know it’s all kind of, you
look at your farm — MORGAN: There’s so many factors,
the factors that are going into that decision. VAL: — and you see what
fits for what you’re growing. And so those decisions
are made year by year. So whether or not we can respond
to a market change based on, you know, what’s being sold
at the grocery store, where the prices are at
and things like that. But that decision is
ultimately up to each farmer to make themselves. VANESSA: And I would
take it one step farther. It is also field by field. This year we have three
different types of soybeans that we are raising as far as, one is
resistant to Liberty chemical, one is resistant to Roundup,
and the other is a non-GMO. So we’ve got those three
different types of fields that we have to very carefully
monitor so that we’re using the right chemical
in each field. And then when we’re storing
them, they have to be stored separately also so that
we know where everything is especially if we’re going
from a GM to a non-GM. And the one thing that I want
to make one simple point about is that GMO or genetically
engineered is not an ingredient. It’s a process of breeding,
just like we’ve been breeding things for —
ever since, you know, the Indians had maize that
didn’t produce very well and so over the years, through
different types of breeding, we now have corn that in
some areas of the United States is like 300 bushels
to the acre. And that’s through
breeding. And genetic engineered is
simply a matter of breeding. They have — we now know where
every gene is, or every genome we’ve tracked the genomes on
corn and on soybeans and so we can find that very one spot
to affect so that, you know, we can have something happen
whether it would be, like, drought tolerance so we wouldn’t
have to have as much water put on a crop. You know all of these things
are very scientific and very technological, but it’s
a simple matter of breeding, it isn’t an ingredient. SUSAN: But it sounds like a lot
of the decisions you’re making around GMOs are based on
business from your perspective, so I’m wondering where the —
people are talking about it more in the consumer marketplace, is
there any — what do you see as your role in that, or at a
certain, kind of at the end of the day that’s up to the
consumer and you guys are making business decisions. How does that work for you? MORGAN: I think we’re
doing it right now. RACHEL: Yeah, I think
that’s exactly it. Farmers have to base, we
have to base our decision on our economics. Morgan and I were talking
earlier, she feeds her cattle corn that they grow because
they can grow good corn there. I’m 50 miles off the Canadian
border in northern Minnesota, I am never going to
get decent corn. So my cattle have to be fed
differently, mine are fed on a barley-based ration when I take
them to the finisher, when I, you know, when I want to get
those steers ready for market. Prior to that, they’re fed
hay or they’re on pasture. It’s not because I think
that my method is better than anyone else’s, it
is the economic decision that works the
best for my farm. And I have people that
come to me and say — I do 30 to 40 finished
cattle a year, just custom finished
for people and it’s all word of mouth and
they come and they say, “Oh, this is grass-fed,” and
it is, but it’s not because I’m against corn or
anything like that, it’s because that’s what
economically feasible for me. And that’s what
I can grow. I can grow barley so I
finish those on barley and a grass-based diet. MORGAN: And I think even as a
farmer, when I go to the grocery store I, and especially as a
mom, you always — you want to provide the best that you
can for your children and I am supportive of GMOs but
that doesn’t mean that I don’t go to the grocery store and
buy organic if it’s on sale. I am a supporter of all aspects
of the industry and I think what is important to me, and I’m of
course on the more emotional side, my husband is going to
make those big strong decisions of the business impacting, but
I’m thinking from an emotional standpoint, too, I want to
support every aspect of our industry because
we’re all important. Organic farmers, conventional
farmers, whether you use antibiotics or hormones or
whether you finish on grass or finish on corn, it’s
all about a choice. And for me, I prefer
corn-finished beef over grass-finished beef but I also
think that if it’s confusing for me going to the grocery store
and seeing all those labels, then it has to be even 10 times
more confusing for a person that’s not coming from any type
of ag or farming background. And I think it’s all about
taking the time to do what you’re all doing right now,
you’re sitting down just listening to us talk about what
we’re doing on our farm and you’re asking those questions
and I think that’s the most important thing that — as
farmers, what we’re doing is making ourselves available. Whether it’s on social media or
sitting on a panel like this, making ourselves available to
people that have the questions, that are looking for answers. SUSAN: And in fact, Vanessa
has a button on that says, “Ask Me, I’m a Farmer.” So, like most topics
throughout American history it sounds like there’s
a lot of complexity here with agriculture and
decisions and economics. And thank you to our panel for
rounding that up so well for us and giving us a lot of
things to think about. Thank you to our audience, and
we’ll be available right after the panel to answer
any more questions and we hope you enjoy the rest
of your visit to the museum! Thank you. [ applause ]

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