Straight talk, from real farmers, in their own words.
Today, consumers have many questions about agriculture and there seems to be no shortage of so-called experts willing to talk to them about the subject. Often, in our crowded world of traditional and social media, it is only the most outrageous headlines that are noticed, but not necessarily the most accurate. So, we asked a group of farmers if they would be willing to speak to you about agriculture. Several producers took us up on our offer. Each month we will feature one of their stories in an on-going series called?“Why We Care”. They will talk about everything from food safety to renewable energy. It’s straight talk, from real farmers and ranchers, in their own words. We encourage you to read and comment on these stories and to share them with others.
We use scientific fact, reason, and logic to guide our farm — and the story we share
National Public Radio contacted me awhile back and asked that I participate in a radio show featuring the founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill, Steve Ells. He had recently announced that his operations intended to eliminate genetically modified ingredients from its food, adding the “non-GMO” attribute to its menu along with “local” and “natural.”
I made it clear that I wasn’t going to argue; he’s in a congested market, and I applaud his efforts to provide consumers with another food choice. But I also pointed out that agriculture faces a huge challenge: feeding 9.7 billion people by 2050. And the truth of the matter is that farmers are going to be expected to meet this goal while using fewer resources?—?less land, less water, and with less impact on the environment.
My point is simply that science and technology must play a critical role if farmers are going to?feed the future population. We take food for granted in the U.S., but when you look around the globe, nearly one-third of people live on less than $2 a day. Implying that a certain choice in food isn’t safe just because it isn’t local or is grown using certain technology?—?well, it just doesn’t seem right. I don’t understand why someone would put down other food choices?—?foods that science tells us are both safe and healthy?—?when perhaps those are the only affordable choices for some folks.
Of all the things we care about at Tom Farms, truth is at the top of the list. We believe that feeding the world is our true calling; our values guide us to seek the truth, guided by scientific fact, logic and reason to help us continually innovate to meet that goal.
We also share our story with consumers, but we find that delivering the truth about agriculture isn’t always easy. Just describing our farm can be a challenge. The Tom family homesteaded here, just outside of Leesburg, Indiana, in 1837; we now grow seed corn as well as commodity corn and soybeans, operating about 20,000 acres across seven Indiana counties and a seed corn unit in Argentina. But we’re still 100% family owned, with my parents still living on the original tract.
There are people who look at us and call us a “corporate farm.” Sometimes they call us a “large corporate farm,” and every now and then, throw in the world “evil.” But in my mind, we are still a family farm, with a number of family members still involved in day-to-day operations. Yes, we use tools such as corporations and limited liability companies (LLCs) to organize our family business, but that’s mostly due to the amount of capital that agriculture requires?—?and to meet certain provisions of tax law.
Look for yourself
We get many visitors to the farm, some of them coming from large cities such as New York or San Francisco. And some of our visitors seem to have a preconceived idea that agriculture needs to go back to grandpa’s way of doing things.
We tell them that we believe in the value of all sizes of farms, from small to large, and that every approach to farming can bring a different value to the world’s consumers. But we show them what we do. We have a soil scientist on contract who looks at each 30 square meters of our farm and writes prescriptions for seeding and nutrient application. We focus on soil health, conservation, and sustainability; we no longer hire tractor drivers, we hire technicians who know how to use the technology inside modern tractors.
Once visitors spend some time with us, they seem to understand and even embrace what we do. It all seems to stem from a lack of connection to agriculture, and that is understandable. About half the U.S. population was directly involved in farming in 1900; the number dropped as agriculture mechanized. That trend has continued through the Green Revolution and today’s breakthroughs such as biotechnology and data science.
Sustainability of modern agriculture is another point we like to discuss. There seems to be a myth that today’s agriculture is intent on using up resources; nothing could be further from the truth. Our goal is for the land on our original homestead to remain just as productive, or perhaps more productive, than it was in 1837. Incorporating practices that improve soil health, as well as our long-time commitment to soil conservation, are part of the solution.
For example, we track our carbon footprint for both corn and soybean production. We have been able to reduce carbon emissions as compared to key benchmarks, and we have a target to reduce our footprint even more by 2030. ”
We also have aggressive goals in other areas that relate to sustainability. For example, we track our carbon footprint for both corn and soybean production. We have been able to reduce carbon emissions as compared to key benchmarks, and we have a target to reduce our footprint even more by 2030. We also track climate change, as farmers always have, but we now use a number of computerized weather and climate tools to help us adjust nutrients and other factors in response to any such changes.
I’m more convinced than ever that we are doing the right thing by pushing for improved science and technology to help feed the world.”
Sharing the story
Over the past few years, I have had the chance to travel with Howard Buffett and see areas of the world where people have a desperate need for food. And I’m sure there are pockets of hunger in our own part of the world, as well.
I’m more convinced than ever that we are doing the right thing by pushing for improved science and technology to help feed the world. One challenge we all face is how to communicate our efforts in agriculture to the world of the consumer.
With farmers now representing less than 2% of the total U.S. population, we have a small voice. The good news is that new technology such as social media can help us gain the leverage we need to reach the rest of society.
Farmers have a good story to tell, but frankly, we have relied on other people to tell our story. As farmers, we need to have truthful and transparent conversations with consumers. It’s now part of the job of farming.