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Story Behind the Meme – Small Farms

February 26, 2015

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome time ago I made a couple of photo memes that I share from time to time. I thought I’d take a few minutes to share why it was made, as some are offended by it. It’s a slam on large farms, or it’s a negative. It’s reality.

The first one is one intended to be all farms. Many don’t know what this is. How does frame of “something” have anything to do with food choices, or farm choices. For those who aren’t familiar with agriculture, or can’t picture this 40 years ago, let me tell you what it is.

It’s the remaining skeleton of the hub of feeding. Much time was spent in this little shack – wind, rain, snow, heat. The covered area protected the operator of a machine inside. Where I stood when taking this would have been a cow’s view, with a door blocking that open door frame. With the gate swung shut, cattle could be sorted from one side to the other. Need to catch an animal – run her into this hallway with all other gates shut. This was feeding center for SunnyBank Charolais cattle.

Behind Joe the wonder pony is the feed bunk with conveyor - the holes allowed feed to drop down into the bunk when triggered by a switch in the shed.

Behind Joe the wonder pony is the feed bunk with conveyor – the holes allowed feed to drop down into the bunk when triggered by a switch in the shed.

Charolais bulls were sold throughout Illinois and Iowa, some to Missouri. The Harvestor, a fifty foot tube structure, stored chopped corn silage, alfalfa and grass from the fields and kept it accessible. A conveyor moved feed out into this room, where another conveyor carried it up and dumped it into an auger which carried it as far as need be before one hit a switch and triggered dumping that feed into the bunk for the cattle to eat. One side or both sides could be fed. A practiced eye resulted in letting enough feed out without excess that was wasted. One space just inside that doorway had to be shoved to the first animal, usually Sam (the bull) took his place there, or an empty 5 gallon bucket was put there to take to an animal that was separated for some reason or to the horses. Corn silage had to be fed carefully, but at times the hay was brought out, the horses and cattle dined on chopped, easy to handle haylage.

When not in use for feeding, this was also a place to escape, sit in the bunk and think. Read. Spend time with a favorite cow that would come over for a scratch on the ear. Memories whisper from the skeleton remains of this room, the conveyors and augors and equipment gone and silenced forever. Sam, Gumbeck, Midget and many others are but a dim memory now, as worn and etched with weeds of life as this shed.

Get big or get out. There’s only so many that can be maintained on a small farm. As we moved away, and my dad wished to be available to visit and travel more, the cows and equipment were sold. The end of an era, fewer purebred Charolais were being used, less interest in beef, more in competition for the lowest dollar and the biggest operation. A number of factors and time from then to when this photo was taken. Consumer demand shaped where agriculture was going then, and what it’s become now.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlmost any food or agriculture article has comments about factory farms. How awful factory farms are. Cold. Uncaring. Not allowing pigs outside. Not like it used to be. Like this farm structure, one which saw many hogs. It was not uncommon to drive by and 80-100 pigs would be lounging around the barn, with sturdy fences and alleys that led to the fenced fields behind the hog barn. In the fall after harvest pigs would glean for corn missed and make use of that which was fallen and otherwise became ‘volunteer corn’ the next year. The hogs fertilized the field also. Just like people want. Or say they want.

When hogs were nine cents a pound, buried under low prices and uncaring consumers who were oblivious to their plight because it didn’t affect them. They couldn’t be more wrong. These farms sold out by the hundreds. The shift to indoor, climate controlled, different kind of hog was underway. Better feed, set up with more automation to deal with fewer bodies available to help on farms. More pork on the market at a price consumers liked, and until fairly recently, few thought much about how it was produced.

For all that detest these larger, but often family run, farms – the lack of support for these small ones created a demand for what now is a new normal in agriculture. Why aren’t pigs raised outside…because consumers didn’t care and support direct small farmers when they were there. Now that choice is gone – the fences torn down – the ghosts of farming past gone.

The point of both of these is that farming is driven by consumer demand. Agriculture can be large or small, but without a demand for both there won’t be both. Demand isn’t what is said – it’s what is bought. Those wanting more small farms need to buy from small farms. If you want a family run farm producing your food, talk with a family run farm to get your food. If you’re content to buy from farmers who sell to markets that end up in volume in the stores or restaurants, well that is an option to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you want all to thrive, support them all. The last photo looks ideal for many. In my mind I still see the stands of alfalfa, the corn field strips slicing on both sides of the creek, the Christmas tree patch to the right of this photo, the trees set up in ‘rough’ transitions between fields that offered places to hide on a summer day or places for wildlife to take shelter. Cattle grazed in some of the pastures. All gone.

Agriculture is changing on customer demand. Choose wisely.

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