Farm to Fork: I Think Our Food Supply is Safe

This is the first in a series of posts about food from farm to fork, dirt to dinner, field to table, or however you think food gets into your kitchen. Look for an upcoming post on my experience on a modern pig farm in southern Minnesota.

I am not a farm girl. I live comfortably in the suburbs. I buy our groceries at the local grocery store or a farmer’s market. I do not know how to drive a tractor and I have never mucked out a barn, milked a cow, gathered eggs, or fed pigs.

Why is it then that I get upset when I read or hear criticism about our country’s farmers? I don’t have a strong connection to agriculture, but I do know where my food comes from. I also know the vast majority of food companies take their job of producing safe food very seriously; their reputation depends on it.  And when I think about agriculture in the U.S., I have a positive feeling about farms and farmers. I believe most farmers–conventional or organic–are hard-working people who care about the land and the animals they raise. I struggled writing this post, because I think I am in the minority.

Minnesota Farmland

Local, organic farms are trending strong in Minneapolis and I think in many cities around the country. Terms like “family farms” are in favor and conventional or modern agriculture has been labeled as “factory farming.”  Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the movie, “Food, Inc.” are getting a lot of airtime about the benefits of local foods and organic farming, but I don’t think they tell the whole story.

I support local farms in theory, and in practice when I can, because I definitely see the benefit of reducing food miles and sourcing food locally.  I majored in ecology and environmental studies in college and I understand the impact of farm runoff in our waters and biodiversity. But, I also know the reality of our world’s food shortages. Small farms will not be able to meet global food needs. In my opinion, conventional farming still has an important role in producing food. And I do not think it is productive to polarize the discussion by labeling modern agriculture as “bad” and family farms as “good.” Pitting farmers against each other does not help move the conversation forward.

Our family of four is on a budget and I buy food we can afford.  Most of the food we buy is a product of conventional agriculture. That means our produce was grown with the aid of fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified (GMO) seeds to increase yields. And our meat is typically from larger farms where animals are raised in large facilities with the aid of technology and interventions like antibiotics.  I feel comfortable eating this food and serving this food to my family.

I’ll risk getting some hate mail, but this is what I think about food:

1. I think our food supply is safe.

2. I think most farmers use pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics judiciously.

3. I will eat food grown from GMO seeds. I am pro-biotechnology and I don’t have concerns about eating GMO corn or wheat.  I think our regulatory system is fair and monitors producers and seed companies well. That said, I am concerned about pollen drift from GMOs creating random hybrids with wild type plants, and I see inequities in the economics of biotech crops that could and should be improved.

4. I do not believe in labeling a modern farm as a “factory farm” just because they use technology or have a large operation. In my opinion, advancements in agriculture are generally good for farmers and for increasing yields.

5. I was vegetarian for over a decade, but I eat meat now. I was a bad vegetarian and was not eating a balanced diet. By adding meat and more vegetables into my diet, I’m eating far fewer processed grains and I feel healthier. I buy conventionally raised meat and vegetables for our family and I feel good about it.

6. I believe the majority of animal producers treat their animals humanely and care about the animals on their farms.

7. I do think some aspects of farming can be improved and would love to see more efforts to control non-point-source pollution and agricultural run-off.

8. I have read extensive reports on our world food supply, and I do believe we need large-scale farming operations using the best technology available to feed our planet. I think local and organic foods have a place in our food system, just as traditional crops are important. I do not think small, local farms can exclusively meet our world’s food needs.

9.  Our family joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for one season and it was not for us. We do not regularly cook with sunchokes, black radishes, kale, fennel, and sorrel. That said, I did appreciate the parsnips, basil, garlic scapes, and eggplant. I would join a CSA again in a heartbeat if we could get more of the items I am accustomed to preparing: cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, zucchini, squash, sweet potatoes, potatoes, peas, beans, corn, and carrots. We visit local farmers markets when we can and happily buy items in season that I can’t find at the grocery store, like big bunches of fresh mint and basil.

10. I worry about childhood obesity and I am trying to teach my daughters how to cook and how to have a good relationship with food. We eat our meals together at the kitchen table and most meals include fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and meat. I want to give my daughters a clear message to eat healthy food and I worry about muddying the waters by adding “but only if it’s local, sustainable, grass-fed, free-range, organic.”  I want to first encourage them to know how food is grown and raised and then we’ll cover the finer points.

I want to be clear that I have a “to each their own” philosophy on most things and do not want readers to think I am disparaging local, organic foods or encouraging people not to support those products. I’m not. I just think conventional foods have a place in our food system too, and at the moment they fit in our tight grocery budget better.

Our country is in economic turmoil and it seems to be getting worse, not better. Many families are likely on a food budget and unable to afford local or organic foods that are generally more expensive.  I decided to share my perspective on our food supply in case there is someone else out there that feels the way I do. I don’t feel bad about buying conventional foods for my family and I hope others don’t either. Mostly, I am grateful that we have plenty of food on our table and enough to share with others in need.

Amy is Amy On The Prairie, a working mom of two young daughters, wife to a really tall engineer, provider to two rescue cats, comfort foodie, food writer, and former world traveler. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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21 thoughts on “Farm to Fork: I Think Our Food Supply is Safe

  1. I love your perspective on this and your willingness to share. I feel like I’m a lot like you. I’ve got five people to feed and shopping at Target and Costco is much more realistic for my family. I love eating fresh food from the farmers market and teaching my kids to cook and be healthy. We also grow our own garden each year and teach the kids how to help and appreciate the food they have.

    • Thank you, Matt. I believe in balance and maybe someday we can purchase organic foods more regularly. I know some families are able to feed their family on locally raised foods on a budget, I just have not figured out how to do it. I want to figure out how to garden. We have a super shady backyard and have trouble growing grass. We successfully grow basil on our deck! Maybe next year…

  2. Hi Amy
    I very much appreciate your perspective and share many of the same values as you. I do have some responses however, to some of your points. You mention a few times that “small farms will not be able to meet global food needs”. I don’t actually think there is consensus on this, and most of what I am reading and hearing these days is that in fact it may be the only thing that will. One of the issues with large scale farming is that it removes any opportunity for individuals and small communities to have control over their own food supply. We cannot feed the world from small farms if those of us in Minnesota are trying to supply food to people in India-but if people in India are able to grow and supply food to their own communities, many of these issues are resolved. It is a much bigger, geopolitical problem, but small farms are really the ONLY sustainable option we have. Mark Bittman, in his funny way, has a good post on this:
    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/sustainable-farming/

    Also, I really take issue with your comment that we are “pitting farmers against each other”. I for one, have extraordinary respect for farmers, and am lucky enough to know and buy my food directly from many farmers, but I do not have much respect for the top executives at some of our giant agribusinesses like Cargill and Monsanto. They are not farmers, yet they own most of the seeds, crops and equipment of many farmers, and they generally reap most of the profit as well. In my opinion, Industrial agriculture has very little to do with farming at all, and more to do with chemical management of depleted and unhealthy land. Also, keep in mind that our government is still subsidizing this highly unsustainable mode of farming such that if these farmers weren’t receiving money for their excessive corn and soybeans, they would be out of business. I think many of these farmers are simply stuck and dependent on a system they can’t control. That said, although I am sure they’d like to use their chemicals “judiciously”, I don’t honestly know how much they have to say about it.

    This is all to say that I am glad you are being thoughtful and trusting of your local farmers, and the medium scale farmers that probably grow some of your food are probably doing their best whether they are using organic methods or not. Sadly, I really don’t think that big, industrial farms are able to guarantee the safety of their food, much as they’d like to. I am not sure who equates the term “modern” with “factory” farming-I prefer to use the term Industrial because I think it is a more accurate description of what I am referring to. Many people I know would describe modern farming as urban agriculture, or permaculture….
    In any case, I agree that it is really important to be sure we are clear on our terminology.

    Finally, I really appreciate your approach to teaching your kids about cooking and being familiar with healthy foods-it is really similar to my approach. And I agree that it is important for them to think about where their food comes from. I am kind of a stickler when it some to the source and the quality of our food, and am not one to hide that from my kids. It doesn’t mean that I shame them for eating a hot dog or a piece of candy, it simply means that I emphasize the importance of a sustainable lifestyle in all ways. We also have made eating this way a priority in our lives, at the expense of some other things-we own only one car, and very little electronic media-maybe that sounds hippie or extreme, but for us it is a lifestyle choice. I think educating ourselves and our communities is the most important thing of all, and I applaud you for taking the leap with this post!

    • Thanks, Jenny. You raise good points and I will respond in the morning. (I just got back from a movie – a fun, rare date night! – and I need to get some sleep before the kids wake up at 6, or earlier). I’ll read the Mark Bittman article. This is such a tricky topic, so I sincerely appreciate your thoughtfulness. Thank you for reading! ~Amy

  3. Nice post Amy! I agree with a lot of what your saying and most of the problem areas that people have with “farmers” is via big-agra corporations. I say “farmers” because I don’t consider corporations to be real farmers. Corporations have dollars in their primary interest and are willing to both raise and slaughter their animals in feces in order to increase their profit margins. Farmers however, respect the animals they raise, and where they may try to do so in a cost effective manner, they do it with respect. Respect for the animal and respect for the people eating the animal. Corporations, big-agra, need to take note about what real farmers are doing and start figuring out cost effective ways to raise and slaughter that do not render the meat unsuitable for human consumption.

    • Hi Keane – Thank you for commenting. It’s interesting because I’ve found the lines between “real farmers” and big ag to be pretty blurred. For example, I know one farmer who is a third generation farmer in southern Minnesota. He and his sons grow sweet corn for Delmonte, raise pork for Chipotle according to sustainable practices, and test soybeans for Monsanto. He uses some low tech practices, like donkeys to control coyotes and other predators, and he has very high tech equipment like combines equipped with GPS to analyze yields. So, is he big ag? A family farm? I know he calls himself a modern farm.

      My next post will be about the pig farm I visited. I consider them to be “real farmers”, but they are also a family farm and a large corporation. My opinion of their operation is that even though they are a very large farm with 2,500 sows, the animals get individual care. Nowhere did I see animals being raised in feces. Everything was very clean. These people are passionate about the pigs and follow a voluntary program called We Care. And, I know profit is a concern for them but I also saw all the improvements they made to make sure the pigs were healthy and reduce odor for the benefit of their neighbors. This issue is so complex and it’s hard for me as an outsider to ag to understand all the nuances. My goal is to keep learning more by talking with farmers and visiting farms when I can.

      Thanks again for weighing in!
      ~Amy

  4. I feel the same way you do Amy, and utilize options for shopping that cause some people to raise their eyebrows at me, which I don’t appreciate, or tolerate at all. I appreciate and cook really good food, and we cook from scratch for everything that we eat. We don’t consume processed foods, junk food, fast food, soda, juice, or anything of the like. I’m a adamant label reader, and avoid a lot of ingredients, buying options that are pure, or we just go without. I shop for nearly all my vegetables at the Farmers Market when it’s in season, but will buy fruit at the store too. I love bananas, cherries, peaches and such, and can’t consider giving up eating them simply because they aren’t grown locally. I accept the reality of our situation and make no excuses for it, nor do I tolerate anyone questioning my choices. Where in our society did we ever feel it’s acceptable to call someone out for doing what we don’t approve of? We don’t get to judge others on their choices. This finger pointing and mud-slinging over food has gotten ridiculous, and the righteous indignation passed around to those deemed ‘unworthy’ makes me want to scream.

    In giving up consumption of meat earlier this Spring, it was important to me to be balanced and healthy in our new way of eating. I did not want to be a junk-food vegetarian; I wanted to increase the overall health of our eating and it’s been a delightful journey, albeit with a lot of new learning on my part. I readily admit there are days that I feel stumped about cooking, or I haven’t had time to visit a market and stock up on what’s fresh. I punt a lot on our meals, but they are always healthy and strong.

    Every time this kind of conversation comes up, it stirs a discussion, as you can plainly see by your comments. We NEED to keep talking about this, keep conversing about our options and choices. Our food blogging community is such a perfect forum for these talks and debates. And the consensus can ripple out to more people, can bring about more discussion and talk and possibly begin to make some strides in changing the typical hard-headed point of view. One can hope anyway.

    • Kate, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your comment. Do you think it would be possible to open up a dialogue or have an event on this topic. I know several on the ag side that would love to have an open discussion. The first that comes to mind is Katie Pinke (comment right below yours). If you like the idea let me know if I can help in any way. Cheers and g’night.

  5. Well Miss Amy, I am with you. But I am immersed in agriculture. Yet I am on a budget like a majority of moms at the grocery store. I want to feed my family healthy and affordable food. I am going to share your thoughts from a non-farmer, surburbanite mom with my friends. I really appreciate your insight. Now how do we spread this message? If you can afford to buy organic that is fine with me. I support all farmers. But fiscally it doesn’t work for me. I don’t have access to organic food supply and first and foremost, I trust the food on my grocery store shelves. I have researched and looked into the food. Consumers can connect with farmers to truly see how and why food is being raised the way it is. I think we are being affluent, snobbish Americans if we think only of our food buying habits and not of a global, HUNGRY population. Technology advancements are needed to grow more, on less land. Thanks again for a refreshing blog post!

  6. Hi, Amy on the Prairie. Aimee in a City here. Thanks for your post and thanks to Katie Pinke for the link.

    First, you’re not alone. I agree with you. It’s time we start talking turkey so to speak about American farming and our food supply. Conventionally produced foods have undeservedly gotten a bad rap. So have bigger farms and technology companies that serve agriculture and as you pointed out keep people in many parts of the world from starving. I suspect a lot of the “reasoning” against American farms and food is more emotional hype than factual.

    I wrote a little post about this in June.There will be more to come. And I look forward to seeing more from you on this enormous and important topic.

    Here’s the link to Milk Wars if you want to check it out: http://everydayepistle.com/2011/06/20/milk-wars/

    • Aimee, thanks for your comment. First, I love your writing style. Second, a major amen on the competitive parenting needing to stop. I have been trying to write about my feelings on that subject and always came up blank. Now, I don’t have to! You said it perfectly. I subscribed to your blog and look forward to reading your posts.

  7. Hi Amy! Aimee in a City recommended your blog post and I really appreciate you speaking up in this way. I think a balanced perspective is needed and I think this post will help to tip the scale towards that end goal. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Tiffany! Thank you so much. I had a hard time writing it because there is a lot I still don’t know about ag, but I just wantted to try to help by sharing my perspective. Thanks for commenting! Stop by again soon 🙂

  8. Thank you for this post! Me and my family own a family owned business to which I work 40 hours a week. Today, here in n.c. its 98 degrees ….and we don’t have a/ c at work! After work we bailed and stacked 150 bales of hay ….to feed our angus cows through the winter. Its 12:15 now, and I’m doing the household chores and laundry. Although I am heat exhausted and mentally worn out, these chores must be done. Not only for me and my family ….but those who buy our hay for their animals, it those who eat our beef at harris teeter. No farms …no food!

    • Christel – Wow! You are busy! I had imagined a farmer’s life would be busy, but I didn’t think of all the steps you just described. Do you get some downtime in the winter? I hope you get a rest and thanks for all you do!
      ~Amy

  9. Thanks for the support.
    As a prairie farmer I have been a large farmer, but it is just dad and I here. We chose to stay family rather than get bigger. Over 90% of the farms in the U.S. are family owned and operated, most of the other 10% are family corporations, still family owned, just choosing to employ others.
    I think most Americans confuse the names of the processors of our foods with the people that raise them. There was not enough money in farming until recently to attract corporations. That left those of us with a love of the land and animals to try to make a living in Agriculture. There is too much variability in land and environment to have a large corporation try to manage land. What works on my farm often does not work only a few miles away. Growing crops and animals cannot be done according to a spreadsheet.
    Did you know that Americans spend less of their paycheck to buy food than anyone else in the world? On average, Americans spend less than 10% of their income on food. Only 17cents of every dollar spent on food actually makes it to the farmer. The corporations that process and transport your food get most of the money you spend on food. The folks in your CSA are trying to get more of that dollar, but a CSA does not work for everyone. I farm too far away from a city to make it work. I have to raise food products for the corporations that process food.
    As for your #7, farmers have been working for years to control the sources of all types of pollution that may come from their farms. Farms have not been the largest source of non-point-source pollution for many years now. Much more pollution comes from city streets and lawns now than from farms. That is why you are hearing more about green roofs and permeable driveways now. We need to hold the water on the ground it falls on and not let it run off as it does from our roofs and parking lots.
    We all need to work together to improve our world. Those of us who live on the farm are tied closer to the land and are doing everything we can to protect the land for our children and all of the worlds children.

    • Michael, thank you! I especially appreciate you addressing the ag runoff. I have been a little out of the loop and didn’t realize the equation had shifted. I have been seeing more green roofs lately. The Minnesota Zoo just did a green roof and it looks gorgeous. As an aside, when I was in food regulatory I learned about green roof problems with food manufacturing because of rodents and such, but that’s a story for a different day. Thank you for telling your story!

  10. Amy,
    Sorry it has taken me a while to catch up on some of your blog posts. As a mom of two boys, a farmer’s daughter and one who works with farmers across Minnesota, I really appreciate your thoughtful post and the discussion.

    What we feed our family – We have a huge garden and try very hard to grow much of the food that we eat. It tastes great. It’s more affordable for our family. It’s a great learning experience for our 2 and 5 year old boys. Our family eats beef and pork from my parent’s farm and our friend’s farms who responsibly use antibiotics, hormones and vaccinations on their animals. These animals are well cared for and healthy! I feed this with confidence knowing that our government has fully tested these practices and have deemed them safe, and the same is true for the conventionally grown foods that I buy at the grocery store. I agree with Katie and Aimee’s comments. This shouldn’t be about status or competitive parenting.

    Our farm backgrounds – My husband and I both grew up on farms and are constantly evaluating how to make the most out of our 4.5 acres. This year our kids were the 5th generation to grow the rhubarb that we sold https://amyontheprairie.com/2011/06/01/minnesota-kids-sell-rhubarb-for-disaster-relief/, and we hope this is the beginning of our farm adventures. We both still assist on our family farms.

    With this said, there is a conflict occurring across America – the small vs. big. Perhaps this will always exist. Look in any history book and isn’t there always a conflict centered around this subject? I work every day to help consumers understand that all types of farms are needed to supply the demands in the marketplace and to supply a growing world with food. But most of today’s U.S. consumers live in a “me” world. This is difficult for farmers to understand for people in agriculture to understand as we are tied to our animals and environment. To us our life mission is to work day in and day out with every energy we have to supply others with food and necessities of life. I believe it ties back not only to our deep religious beliefs but also to our involvement with both 4-H http://www1.extension.umn.edu/youth/support/pledge.html and FFA https://www.ffa.org/about/whoweare/Pages/TheFFACreed.aspx#.

    While Americans appear to live in a “me” society, agribusiness is looking in their communities and across the world to solve hunger issues. Hormel is working on a fortified turkey product called Spammy to address malnutrition in children in Gautemala http://www.hormelfoods.com/responsibility/hunger/default.aspx. Elanco is working to end childhood hunger in Indianapolis by 2015. http://www.indianaeconomicdigest.net/main.asp?SectionID=31&SubSectionID=202&ArticleID=60256. While at a meeting with Monsanto (learning about how they are addressing the growing world population), I sat beside a young farmer from central Minnesota who raises seed for Monsanto. I guarantee you that they take excellent care of their soils and environment and are up for the challenge of feeding the world because they know it is the right thing to do.

    I am proud to be part of agriculture. And sincerely appreciate the food discussion and hearing consumer perspectives.

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