In the years after 19th century scholar Thomas Malthus warned that humanity was on course to produce more hungry mouths than meals, the world responded with an industrial revolution, plants and animals that were bred to be more productive and extensive advancements in biotechnology.
Now, the United Nations says world food output must double over the next 40 years to feed an estimated 8 billion people. But simply filling stomachs is no longer the only thing farming is about.
“Farming is an environmental cause. A social justice cause. It’s an economic, political, health and religious cause. Farming is a human rights cause. And it’s an animal rights cause,” said Brent Porteus, a Coshocton County grain and cattle farmer and Ohio Farm Bureau’s former president.
Life was simple when all people expected of farmers was plentiful, affordable, safe food, he said.
“Now, every time (farmers) climb on the tractor, we’re jumping into the middle of a thousand debates.”
The question may not be if farmers can produce enough food to nourish a growing population. Rather, can society find agreement on a contemporary food system that can sustain that growth?
On his blog, Ohio State Extension Educator Andy Kleinschmidt recently contemplated the top 10 most influential individuals in farming history. High on his list was Norman Borlaug, whose research on wheat helped save millions from starvation and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. But Kleinschmidt also considered the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring gave momentum to the environmental movement.
Kleinshmidt expects advancements in technology rather than philosophy will be required to meet future food challenges, but he said it is yet to be seen the impact that critics of modern farming practices will have. However things play out, he hopes the public understands who farmers are, not just how food is produced.
“Real people get up and go to work every day making food and they have the same concerns that you and I have, the same desires that you and I have,” he said. “Food production is coming from real people.”
For their part, farmers have recognized they are feeding a world of individuals with unique needs. The fields across Ohio have become laboratories for how the world will be fed on the world’s terms. And Ohio farmers are finding they have very diverse roles to play.
Katherine Harrison studied world religion in college, although she never expected to apply her education on the family’s Franklin County sheep and goat farm.
Once a very traditional agricultural enterprise, Blystone Farm has become an important destination for central Ohio’s growing population of Muslim and Orthodox Christian African immigrants.
“We realized that if we wanted to keep the farm and keep this in the family we’d have to do something drastically different,” Harrison said.
As part of a new custom butchering business, the farm began offering ritual slaughter services in accordance with its clients’ religious and cultural beliefs. Harrison is confident that past generations would be pleased to see the farm continue to survive by meeting new demands.
“It’s been a real blessing. It’s grown a lot. It’s changed how our farm operates in a very good way,” she said.
She also hopes other Ohio farmers can continue to be successful by locating niche markets.
“It’s very exciting to me to see that agriculture is becoming more diverse, and I hope that more people can become involved,” she said.
In Fairfield County, Matt and Kristin Reese maintain a flock of sheep as well as a few chickens and meat rabbits on a small plot notched into a cornfield.
“We’re pretty much going to be millionaires for sure,” Matt smirked.
The couple will sell enough whole chickens, eggs and rabbits to at least break even on feed costs, and they’ll look to turn a modest profit on their lambs.
“You do it because you enjoy it,” Kristin said.
Both work off the farm; Matt writes for Ohio’s Country Journal and Kristin is a real estate agent.
Even though their homestead is dwarfed by the expansive farms that surround it, they’re passionate about their endeavor. The Reeses invite customers to take a close look at the relationship between the chickens and the eggs in the coop behind their barn. They answer questions and build awareness.
“What I’d love to see is a lot more of these small farms popping up,” Matt said. “The more small farms, the more consumer connection we’re going to have.”
The Reeses find enjoyment through interaction with nature and hope to preserve a traditional farming lifestyle for their children.
“What we do is important because we provide a market for locally grown food,” Kristin said. “But we can’t feed the world.”
Meeting the need
Thirty-year-old corn and soybean farmer Cody Kirkpatrick said he often fondly thinks about what agriculture must have been like in Fayette County a half century ago.
“It’s such an interesting way of life and it’s fun to me,” he said.
But he knows the past was filled with back-breaking work, and many families were content to just get by.
As he considers agriculture’s heritage, he also can envision a time where he will stand at the edge of his fields and watch his tractors drive themselves. It’s a day that he sees getting closer through his job at a farm equipment dealership.
“I enjoy selling equipment to the older generations because they really enjoy seeing where agriculture is at,” he said.
Kirkpatrick is proud both of the land he farms and of the food he produces. It’s the same ground his great-grandparents tended, and he hopes his son can farm there one day.
As far as the best way to produce food – organic or conventional, free-range or barn-raised, locally grown or globally driven – Kirkpatrick said it’s not that simple.
“There’s nothing wrong with being diverse. It’s whatever the market can bear,” he said.
He sees his job as keeping the population fed by producing an abundant crop. At the same time, he is well aware of those who send blame farmers’ way for everything from obesity to environmental damage. But he doesn’t buy into those characterizations. In his eyes, farmers are growing wholesome products and improving how they operate every day.
“On any farm, there’s always going to be benefits and there’s going to be negatives. You hope you’re going in the right direction,” he said. “I hope we are.”
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