A food organization recently criticized the tone of the discussion about America’s food system, saying it is unnecessarily leading consumers to draw a line between food that is “controversial” and food that is “controversy-free.”
The rhetoric has often been heated, but it also has often been removed from the real implications for Ohio farmers and their customers alike. To begin to foster a more constructive dialogue about how food can best contribute to the quality of life for Ohioans and their communities, Our Ohio recently visited two farm families who take very different approaches to growing food and asked them about factors that influence their decisions.
Ben + Lisa Sippel
It was unusual that a couple of former city kids worked their way to full-time employment on a small farm. It was unusual that, in an area known for vast fields of corn and soybeans, they started growing vegetables for a Community Supported Agriculture program—an arrangement in which customers subscribe to receive shares of the crop. And their latest endeavor, milking sheep to produce artisan cheese, that’s simply a first for Ohio.
But what this pioneering couple say they share with others who grow food is passion.
“The people that are still farming do indeed love farming,” Ben said, “because it wouldn’t be for the money.”
The diversity of the farm (the couple also has an orchard and will soon be feeding pigs with whey and vegetable scraps) gives the Sippels a financial safety net throughout the year. But perhaps more importantly, they believe they’re setting an example for their son, Charlie.
“If Charlie would like to farm in the future, we would like for him to have a lot of options,” Lisa said.
Concerns about the aging farm population and barriers to entering agriculture weigh on the couple, who argue that further consolidation of food production is not the solution for a “vocation of unimaginable variables.”
“Really the root of the problem is who’s going to be farming,” Ben said.
He became interested in growing food in college as he saw agriculture frequently fingered as the cause of environmental problems.
“I always kind of thought to myself, if we can find a lot of people who don’t need to eat, we’re fine. But everyone has to eat, so it’s one of those things we kind of have to work with,” he said.
While the couple favors organic growing methods, they advocate for a dialogue that would take a critical look at the best practices from all sectors of food production.
“We have to realize that everybody has some good ideas and perhaps if we do try to meet in the middle somewhere, that would make a lot of things better,” Lisa said.
The challenge they see is one that echoes throughout Ohio’s countryside: How can Ohio produce food efficiently and profitably on large and small farms in ways that are sustainable and attractive to a new generation of farmers.
They encourage nonfarmers, who they believe want to do the right thing for Ohio agriculture, to take a closer look at food production.
“That little piece of information that you just got from watching that particular movie, absolutely—you saw it, it’s true. But it’s not the whole story,” Lisa cautions. And, she adds, if customers have different expectations for food, it simply might cost more.
As the Sippels seek a high-minded discussion on critical food issues, so much of what they believe is still grounded in the soil. Building healthy soil is key to healthy food, Ben says, and every acre Ohio loses to development, or is depleted by erosion, is a precious acre.
“Ohio should be an important part of the food future for our country,” he said.
The first thing you notice about Hord Livestock in Crawford County is the flurry of activity.
Harvesters are chopping up corn plants for cattle feed as a tractor prepares a field for the next crop. Others haul the harvest down the highway, and semi trucks weave through the grain bins at the family’s feed mill. Long red barns stretch through fields of corn, soybeans and hay.
It’s hard to imagine that this scene grew from Hord’s grandfather raising a small herd of pigs on rented land in the 1940s.
In addition to Hord, his wife, his father, his siblings, and their spouses, the farm relies on about 100 employees. The family raises 15,000 mother pigs and contracts with 80 local farmers to raise the piglets. The family also has relationships with farmers in southeast Ohio who provide cattle for their feedlot. They purchase much of the grain that feeds their animals from local farmers.
Not to mention, “We have eight chickens running around at home laying eggs,” Hord said.
The responsibility that this farm has to the community is not lost on him.
But “at the end of the day, it’s not about size,” Hord said. “It’s about the way of life and it’s about our calling we feel like in producing food.”
Hord says the farm has an ethical responsibility to efficiently use resources while at the same time practicing agricultural stewardship.
“You can be efficient and not necessarily be good agricultural stewards,” he said. “We readily recognize that, and there’s a lot of things (we do) that don’t always make the most sense from the bottom line.”
He says he’s focused on environmental practices that can be sustained for generations. And to demonstrate its commitment to its animals, the family opened up the barns to a third party auditor.
“We’ve looked at it and said ‘We’re proud of what we do, how we do it.’ What downside is there? Something we need to get better at? Let’s do it,” he said.
One of his primary concerns, however, is how food is being marketed.
“We have to do a better job of understanding the differences in the products and how it’s raised—full disclosure on how that happens. But if we’re not careful, we will confuse our consumer to the effect that they don’t feel good about the choices that they’re making, because maybe they can’t afford some versions of some specialty products,” he said.
At the same time, Hord said the farm is focused on giving customers what they want.
“The really tough thing is figuring out, what is it? And will the consumer pay for that extra? Will they say they will and maybe not?” he asked.
He pointed to mandates that were implemented in the United Kingdom that raised the cost of food production, but were ultimately not supported by consumers, putting local farmers at an economic disadvantage.
“We have to embrace the ideas, talk about them, talk about what do we want to do long term for our consumers and agriculture in general, and understand that we need to embrace our diversity and our choice,” he said.
“Sometimes people just get so caught up in being passionate about what they’re doing that they don’t realize that maybe they’re taking away some choice from people by really trying to push one or the other.”
“We think there needs to be all (types) of agriculture,” Hord said. “All hands in.”