Food for thought about our beleaguered farmers

Posted 12/6/18

When I was a youngster – not to be confused with me saying when I was “a little boy,” since childhood pictures show I never was very little – I had some exposure to …

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Food for thought about our beleaguered farmers

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When I was a youngster – not to be confused with me saying when I was “a little boy,” since childhood pictures show I never was very little – I had some exposure to agriculture and farming.
It wasn’t that I grew up on the farm or plowed the lower 40 with a mule. Or even primed tobacco, as many of my schoolmates did, especially those from the Wilsonville “valley.”
Instead, my exposure was the two or three pigs we fed each fall and winter until the weather was cold enough to turn them into tenderloin and sausage. In addition, each year Daddy would get 50 or so day-old chicks at about the same time that would eventually turn into Sunday dinners beginning a few months later. And while we never grew cotton or soybeans, we had corn and beans in my mama’s garden. She let me help by going along picking up rocks as she ran the tiller.
Obviously, agriculture in Chatham County has changed through the years. The good fertile black soil of Wilsonville and Bells now lie under the 40,000 acres of Jordan Lake. Not much tobacco is grown these days and the days of the maturing of the golden leaf for harvest being the engine that decided the opening day of school each fall is long gone.
Long gone, as well, are the days I fed and watered the chickens or toted (a Southern word for “carried”) 5-gallon buckets of water from the house to the pig pen which was 150 yards away – and it was uphill both ways – in an effort to keep the pigs watered and their mud hole muddy.
Later, in an effort to impress Shirley after we began dating, I found ways to help my future father-in-law with his pigs or even working some at the tractor and farm equipment business he ran with some other folks. And from time to time, I’d saw a board or drive a nail for the latest farm building project he was undertaking.
Eventually, I found a job with an agricultural marketing and supply outfit – FCX, which is now Southern States – and came to understand and appreciate more some of the ins and outs of the food and fiber industry. Eventually, my father-in-law cleared and pastured his spread on the outskirts of Bear Creek and we put a few head of cattle on it.
In time, he gave it up and I took over, meaning I put out a few more cows, raised some calves and added a few dollars to the family cash flow – but I always had another steady income so what we were doing was a sideline, a part-time gig, so to speak.
In time, the younger of the two 40-somethings who used to be teenagers who lived at my house decided he would enter the world of agriculture. A few years at N.C. State and some jobs with other producers followed before he jumped from the frying pan into the fire and decided to try it on his own as a full-time career.
And here’s where it starts to get interesting – on several fronts.
I’m sure every profession has its share of ups and downs, things that are good and some not so. But I’m pretty sure without food nothing else matters. And as our society gets more urban and farther away from the farm, there’s a disconnect in the minds of much of society.
Even in the 1970s during my FCX time, when youngsters were asked “Where does our food come from?” they’d often answer, “From the grocery store.” And I’ll never forget seeing the “typical American housewife,” as a major network described her in her appearance before a Congressional committee that was part of the evening news, complaining: “Why is everyone so concerned with farmers? As long as we’ve got grocery stores we’re fine.”
I hope she didn’t have children.
Anyway, here’s the bottom line. For many farmers today, the work isn’t as positive. The average age of farmers is 58; few young people are flocking – or even coming at all – to the profession. Across the state, three-fourths of our farms produce less than $100,000 in annual revenue – that’s revenue, not profit. And half of them produce less than $10,000.
Events like drought or Hurricane Florence play havoc with a farmer’s prospects. Crops have to be harvested when they’re ready and if the fields are flooded, there’s no way. And if livestock or poultry are lost to catastrophic events, another catastrophic event could be just around the corner.
So if you see a big tractor pulling a big piece of equipment, don’t curse the driver for being on the road when you want to go 80 miles an hour or don’t think his pockets are bursting at the seams with a fat wallet that bought that rig. Odds are good he’s (or she’s) up to the eyeballs in debt.
Keep them in your prayers and if you see one, say “thanks” for that steak or cheeseburger or vegetable soup you just enjoyed.


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