KIMBALL, Neb. – Most ag producers field questions from time to time about what we do and how we do it. Sometimes the questions come from city folk, sometimes from our closer neighbors, and often the questions come from children.
Answering these questions is probably more important today than at any time in the past. Important not only to the future of our agricultural lifestyle, but to the future of our nation and society as well. In 2018, most Americans are removed from farming and ranching not only by space, but time as well. As recently as 1960, most people across the country were only a generation removed from the farm or had relatives who farmed or ranched. Most had a real, intuitive understanding of where their food came from. But that’s no longer the case in the twenty-first century.
Last week I had the opportunity to field a lot of ag questions when our ranch hosted a tour group of 65 members of an antique car club. Those 65 hailed largely from Midwest farming states, yet none of them were even remotely connected to agriculture. I was able to share a good bit of information with the tour group, and it was pretty clear that many were hearing about agriculture first hand for the first time.
How and why were popular questions. How we produce food and why we choose to do so. Those questions provided the opportunity to share some of the background of agriculture in this country.
If you stretch the USDA numbers a bit and do some rounding up, you’ll see that about one percent of America’s 300 million-plus souls are actively producing food for the other 99 percent. This isn’t news to Business Farmer readers, who largely fall into the ag production category, but it’s usually a surprising statistic to most of the country’s non-agriculturalists.
At the turn of the 20th Century, Americans were closer to the land, with as many as 90 percent living on and deriving their income from farms and ranches. In 1900, there was simply no other way. Of the three vital necessities – water, food and shelter – food is the most perishable and must be replenished each day. Though the ag production capacity was potentially high enough to feed many more city dwellers, a robust and efficient transportation and distribution system had yet to be built.
But the country was in the midst of an industrial revolution, and by 1910 the shift from agrarian to industrial society was in full swing. Between 1910 and 1940 urban populations climbed while rural populations plummeted. The internal combustion engine and incredible improvements and increases in ag production make it possible today for one person to feed more than 100.
Another question was whether or not the EJE is “green.”
To be honest, the question caught me by surprise. “Look around,” I said, “what do you see?”
“What color is it?”
But that’s not what they meant, of course. They wanted to know whether the ranch is, to use today’s popular language, environmentally friendly and sustainable. A very good, and very important question. And one that revealed that, for the most part, they really weren’t entirely sure what they meant by “green,” or “environmentally friendly,” or “sustainable.”
The question was an excellent opportunity to help them define their terms, and to show them just how very “green” a ranch really is.
Green is the color of chlorophyll, of course, the pigmented chemical that allows plants (and algae) to use sunlight to power their growth in the process of photosynthesis. The basis of nearly all life on earth, chlorophyll converts sunlight into energy to turn water, micronutrients, and atmospheric carbon dioxide into cellulose, starch and sugar.
“Look around,” I said, “all that green grass is the beginning of the food chain.” The grass feeds cattle, which in turn feed us with meat and dairy. Other grasses, like corn and wheat, provide bread and other foods that we eat. But it all starts with green chlorophyll and sunshine.”
The grass and other plants feed the prairie ecosystem too, and the tour allowed us to show off not only the beauty of spring wildflowers, but also the rich diversity of animal life on the prairie. Rabbits, ground squirrels, coyotes, birds, reptiles, insects – every animal on the prairie relies first of all on chlorophyll and sunlight powered grass for their existence.
“And that’s where the term ‘green’ comes from.”
It was a delightful thing to see the contemplation and excitement on the faces of people who were seeing, some for the first time, real examples of a working ecosystem.
Which brings us back to the beginning. As we go forward, we ag producers need to be prepared to answer the questions posed by those of us who are increasingly divorced from the land. We’ll all continue to hear the questions, and in some sense, the future of our nation and society may hinge on the small and simple lessons we can share with the 99 percent of Americans each of us help