The feast I fixed on Labor Day depended on working folks. They labor on farms, drive trucks, process chickens into fresh poultry in a package, stock shelves on the grocery store, slide my food across a scanner before my debit card sends a signal to a satellite that gives me permission to push a grocery cart full of good grub to my car. I know so little about the people who produced this food and how they did so.
My contribution to Monday’s meal was some rather puny tomatoes from my clay-soil, too-shady garden. At least I tossed something that I raised into the skillet. But it took a fair amount of watering and effort just to keep those tomato plants alive through the heat and dryness of July and early August. I’m glad other people are willing to work hard to produce food.
Platte County was once a farm-dominated county. Anyone locally raised, who is baby boomer age or older, remembers those days. Belgian farmers in the Missouri River bottoms in Riverside once produced spinach and other produce that helped feed Kansas City. Farmers who raised corn, soybeans and milo also sold beef cattle down at the stockyards in the city’s West Bottoms. A few dairy farms lasted into the Space Age but not the computer age. Parkville was once a farm town.
We’ve still got some full-time farmers among us but they’re getting rare as new subdivisions appear. Most of us know so little about how to operate the machinery, when to plant, what fertilizer to use, whether herbicides and pesticides are warranted and how to finance the operation. How hungry we would be without the complex agriculture farm-to-market system that has evolved in the United States.
We can all understand that a trade war with China and other countries has boosted supply and suppressed commodity prices below levels that farmers need to pay the bills and keep the farm. But we don’t know the day-to-day sweat and skills needed to fill grain bins or keep livestock healthy.
Yet understanding goes two ways. So many farmers likely don’t know the daily hassles and worries faced by people cooking and serving food in chain restaurants and fast-food outlets. We still have high school and college kids getting their first jobs in such eateries to earn spending money. But we also have people attempting to pay rent, keep gas in the car and feed their children by working for take-it-or-leave-it poverty level wages in the food service industry.
The gap between food producer and consumer is so wide that one group cannot see or truly understand the other.
We have exceptions. Green Dirt Farm at Weston keeps winning awards for creative cheese production. You can find their products in some specialty stores or buy cheese directly from the farm. The farmer’s markets that appear in summer in our towns offer fresh produce that, while not cheap, is ripe and ready and locally grown. I’ve seen northwest Missouri-raised, grass-fed beef in local stores that is not unreasonably priced. My local grocery store tries pretty hard to promote healthy produce and identify from where it comes from. These are hopeful signs, but a quite small portion of the food stream in our county and America.
Instead, we’ve come to accept as normal the $10 hamburger and french fries that are barely recognizable as having come from a potato. At one end of the food chain we have farmers struggling with price boom and bust cycles, bad weather and international politics. The news carries stories about suicide rates among farmers being up. Their multiple problems include less soybean sales to China in trade war times. At the other end are families getting price shock at fast food outlets or in the checkout line at the grocery store.
What a complex web for food we have woven. A century and a half of changes has given us remarkable variety whether dining out or cooking at home, but terrific uncertainty for consumer and producer.
As Platte County continues to transition from rural to suburban in nature, I hope local food production such as vegetables and apples survive so we have satisfying choices, and a supply of sorts if disaster strikes those segments of the agriculture industry. We cannot quickly fix the economic costs and risks faced by both farmers and consumers. A system that evolved over a century and a half, and then changed radically after World War II, is not easily transformed into something better.
But the start of something better is going to be more communication between people in the cities and those on the farms. The problems are plentiful. Society cannot fix them without more awareness and understanding of what goes on from farm to plate.