The Great Divide: Things I Wish The Non-Farm Community Knew About Farmers

The Great Divide: Things I Wish The Non-Farm Community Knew About Farmers
By Jennie Schmidt, MS, RD

You would think that living in a rural area, that agriculture would be the fabric of people’s lives. The core of what makes up a community. But as I look across my county here on the Eastern Shore and the entire State of Maryland, even though agriculture is the largest industry in the state, there is a great divide between the farm and non-farm communities.

Did You Know?
According to the 2010 Maryland Agriculture Census, there is a little over 2 million acres of farmland in the state. That is only half again what the number of acres or one million acres of lawns in the state. Sadly, many of those lawn acres used to be productive farm land but as population grows, farm land is converted to suburbia.

Maryland has a population of nearly 6 million people, of which approximately 12,000 are farmers. That’s barely .002% of the state population! The population disparity between farm and non-farm communities was really highlighted for me when my kids started public school. In a grade of 60 kids in elementary school, my kids were and still are often only one of two or three school children in their grade whose family’s farm full time. For a rural community, you would think that the schools would be full of farm kids, but nothing could be further from the truth.

So here are some things I wish non-farmers understood:

1. Saying “Yeah, I visited my Grandfather’s farm in the summer as a kid, I know all about farming.” or “I grew up on a farm” does not mean you fully grasp how to run a farming business. Farming today is nothing like it was even 20 years ago. Unless you’ve walked a mile in my shoes as the saying goes….
2. When you’re backed up behind me on the road, know that the average tractor speed is 15-25 MPH. I cannot speed up to please you nor can I simply move over to let you by. Take a deep breath. You and I both need to get where we are going safely… safely being the operative term here.
3. “Farming is the life”. Yes, yes it is. It is “the” life, but not an “easy” life. I can’t think of a better place to raise kids, but there are huge sacrifices to such as only going to the beach when it rains or in the winter…
4. I am not over applying fertilizer. First, whether its nitrogen or manure, both are expensive. I can’t afford to be wasteful. Farmers are intuitively cognizant of the resources we use and do all that we can to be both economically efficient and environmentally sensitive.
5. Just because I do not farm organically, does not mean the food I grow is toxic. Everything I apply is license and approved for use in food or grain crops. My goal is wholesome, nutritious, good quality food. I feed what we grow to my family and they are more important to me than anyone else. If what I feed my kids is safe, then know that what you buy at the grocery store is also safe because most of it comes from US farm families.
6. 98% of all farms in the USA are family-owned and operated. The food at the grocery store is likely to have been grown by a US farm family like mine. I rode a cucumber picker the other day with a friend. She sells cukes to several pickle companies but you’d never see her picture on the label. Likewise, we sell fresh market green beans to a regional food distributor. They can end up in any grocery store in the MidAtlantic region, Safeway, Whole Foods, Giant, Acme, Food Lion, etc… Don’t assume because the produce is not from a farmer’s market or farm stand that what’s in the grocery store in season isn’t local. More than likely, if its in season, the grocer sourced it from a local farm.
7. Size doesn’t matter. Large farms like mine are often defined as “corporate” which is equated as being bad. Mine is an incorporated family farm. We are incorporated for business tax purposes and to protect personal assets from business assets. But as I said in the bullet point above, 98% of all US farms are family owned and operated. Some a small and some are big, but really… does size matter? In order for the 4 children in the next generation of Schmidt’s to find a place of employment on the family farm, we will have to get larger. They will have to get college degrees and bring employable skills that we need back to the farming operation. It is not an entitlement to simply get a job on the family farm when there is no way to afford additional families on the payroll. In that respect, size does matter in order to accommodate the next generation of farmers back to the family farm. But its all still a family business.
8. I gave one of our pigs a shot of antibiotics this week. He had a temperature over 104, crackles in the right lung, and coughing. Pneumonia was the diagnosis. Would you have not had me treat this animal and have it suffer? Farmers use antibiotics judiciously in the care and treatment of their livestock. Period.
9. Most farmers are stewards of their land as it is their legacy. We’re proud to produce food and are passionate about doing so in a way that improves the soil and leaves a healthy farm business for the next generation to carry on.

Jennie Schmidt is a farmer and Registered Dietitian. She farms full-time with Schmidt Farms Inc and managing partner for Schmidt Vineyard Management LLC, who blogs as http://thefoodiefarmer.blogspot.com. You can follow her on Twitter as @FarmGirlJen or on Facebook as The Foodie Farmer.

Mark your calendars!  Join MHC at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum for The Chesapeake Folk Festival on July 28 in St. Michael’s. Stop by the Let’s Be Shore sharing station and/or attend our free panel discussion at 3pm with Jenny Rhodes (Farmer), Ed Fry (Farmer), John Kotoski (Developer), and Fred Pomeroy (Pres. Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth), moderated by Michael Buckley, host of “Voices of the Bay” on WRNR Radio.

About MD Humanities Council

LetsBeShore is a project of the Maryland Humanities Council's Practicing Democracy program, bringing together multiple perspectives for passionate and respectful dialogue about land use and agriculture and their effect on water quality along Maryland's Eastern Shore.
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2 Responses to The Great Divide: Things I Wish The Non-Farm Community Knew About Farmers

  1. Isabel Junkin says:

    “Sadly, many of those lawn acres used to be productive farm land but as population grows, farm land is converted to suburbia.”

    Population growth is increasingly putting pressure on our farmland, and the desire for development and economic stimulation is often pitted against farm preservation here on the Eastern Shore. What I don’t understand is why so many farmers are against the State’s smart growth initiatives that work to preserve farmland by concentrating growth around designated areas. I understand that people don’t want to be overly-regulated in what they can do with their land, but without regulations in place to encourage farmland preservation and smart growth we could see increasing farmland acres turned into lawns.

    Jennie, In the interest of lessening that divide between farmers and non-farmers, I would like to hear your perspective – why do I hear farmers saying they want to stay farmers and then hear them say they want to be able to develop their farmland if they want to? I understand it’s an insurance policy, but it still seems to go against the rhetoric of “preserve farms” that is so ubiquitous.

    Thank you.

  2. Ken says:

    Basically, farming can be an expensive business proposition. Farm equipment maintenance and replacement (ever price a combine?) sometimes come at great costs and at the worst times. Farmers need as much leverage as they can get in order to get financing from a bank, even if for just a short period of time. If the value of the land is diminished (in the banks eyes), by not being able to be valued as potentially developable property, the numbers may not work. Also, as farm families grow, the ability for subdividing home parcels for future generations of farmers also grows. It is a fine line, but the need is still there. Also, when a longtime farmer passes and his family has gone on in other directions, there is not always another farmer that is financially ready to make the purchase and take on the responsibility. In summary, we need options available to the farmer.
    We all have to live together. As the population increases, so does the need for housing and farming. Yields have come a long way over the years farmers are getting more and more efficient everyday. However, all of this comes at a cost.

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