Food as the New 401K?


I couldn’t resist snapping this picture of the woman’s cart in front of me at the grocery store checkout. The young high school girl scanning the groceries commented on how expensive all  the organic food is and asked the woman if she thought it was worth it. Her immediate response was, “ABSOLUTELY because there aren’t any pesticides in it. It’s the one thing I invest in for my family. I don’t have a 401K or anything else…I invest in food today because it’s most important to me.” I cringed and took a deep breath…but I couldn’t be angry with this woman for her beliefs. After all, she did have a healthy cartful of fruits and vegetables and milk that just happened to be organic. I support all agriculture and have friends who likely produced some of the food in her cart.

But I do feel sorry for her.

I feel sorry for the majority of consumers, immersed in confusion at the grocery store. With misleading labels on practically every shelf and misinformation a mere Google search away, how can I not feel sorry for them? Fear-marketing sells and hurts everyone in agriculture. If I didn’t have a front row seat every day to life on a farm, how could I buy anything but this milk? Check out the packaging, full of alluring words like “delicious”, “nutritious”, “raised with love”, “commitment to the highest standards”, “cows are part of our family”,… and none of those bad things that you have heard about are in this container…nothing “toxic.” It’s simply beautiful. The reality is that this pretty wholesale jerseys label could be on any of the milk containers at the store with or without the word “organic” or “pasture when available.”  I know that all milk is safe and nutritious and comes from cows raised with a high quality of care. But at $6.99 per gallon, it’s quite obvious that pretty world! marketing sells.

But to the tune of replacing retirement plans and other investments?

How sad it is that we in agriculture have allowed others to tell our stories and define us by dividing us for profit. Mis-trust in any facet of agriculture hurts us all. As a veteran Common Ground volunteer ( I have had conversations with thousands of consumers and see this carnage firsthand. From the moms who feel guilty and cannot sleep at night because they can’t always afford local or organic food for their children, to the young women who have chosen to simply not eat meat or drink milk because it’s just too confusing to sort through. I have worked on farms of all types and sizes the majority of my life…large, small, conventional, organic, all family-owned and operated…and the bottom line is that American agriculture is something to be proud of. My respect and admiration for farmers extends a lifetime. I am a mom and a consumer who wants to buy safe food that is raised with high standards from people who share my values. The quality of the animal care or end product has absolutely nothing to do with some fancy food label or latest and greatest marketing campaign. There is no one-size-fits-all way to farm. From the food at a local farmers’ market or CSA to a large chain grocery store, the quality of the food produced has everything to do with the type of person the farmer is.

Farmers are simply the best humans.

I would love to see farmers stand up to the companies that market their products in a fear-based or untruthful manner. Enough is enough. Perhaps they all need to demand more help in this arena from their check-off dollars and suppliers. Farmers need to be the ones who define and represent sustainability and integrity – not a fast food chain or person behind a desk. Farmers invest their lives in producing quality safe food for their families and ours so we have nothing to fear.

It’s Time to Speak Up

One of my favorite ways to start the day is at the counter of Starbucks ordering a grande triple shot caramel macchiato and a spinach and feta breakfast wrap, but I ALWAYS ask to substitute the cage free eggs with just regular eggs…

I am usually met with a look of question, not only from the barista but also all the people in line with me…and the response is a disappointed, “I’m sorry, we can’t do that, ma’am.”  I then smile and ask them to please pass my message on to corporate that I would like the choice.  Then I have a captive audience for the next 20 seconds where I explain that I want the eggs from the chickens grown in cages fed corn because I have raised chickens and I know how much they like to eat things out of the dirt, including bugs, grubs, etc…but I also have friends who have some really nice chicken barns with cages that grow very healthy, happy birds too.

It’s time to speak up.

Did you know we have more bus drivers in our country than farmers?  There is a large audience to talk to about food production who have never actually “been there and done that.” We now live in a time when marketing that plays on emotions and the opinions of journalists trump solid peer-reviewed science every single day.

All of this well-funded creative marketing wants consumers to buy the latest and greatest: organic, natural, GMO free, rBst free, cage free, hormone free, antibiotic  free, humanely raised, responsibly produced, and the list could go on and on…but all of this strategic play on words and labels comes at the expense of consumers’ trust in agriculture.  The latest buzz word must be good and conventional must be bad. The story of agriculture is being told by people selling stories, not by those actually involved in agriculture every day.

Another one of my favorite things to do is go to the grocery store either on Friday afternoon at 5:30 or Sunday after church at noon.  Some of my very best conversations about farming and food happen then!  It is so easy to strike up a conversation with someone comparing labels in the dairy aisle or meat counter and ask if they have any questions.  I tell them I am simply a mom who understands the importance of feeding my family the healthiest food and I get the great opportunity to work on different farms every day.  I can share my perspective on different farming practices because I have seen it all.  The real tragedy is how truly scared people have become of food when we are producing the safest food in history, using less resources than ever before.  My mission at every visit to the grocery store is to give people permission to not fear their food.

It’s time to speak up.

I am proud of conventional agriculture and not afraid to feed my family conventional food.  I see how the animals are raised every day and how the land is cared for.  I have friends who are organic farmers, but I would never pay more for the food they produce. The biggest misconception is that a label means something is safer or healthier.  A great example of this is the fact that added steroids and hormones aren’t even allowed in poultry production in the United States, yet consumers continually pay a premium for “hormone-free” chicken in the grocery store.

I truly believe that it doesn’t matter what production method is used when it is really the human element that makes all the difference.  I always encourage people to visit a farm if they have questions about agriculture instead merely relying on the internet.  I could take you to visit a beautiful 35 cow dairy or a beautiful 3,500 cow dairy.  Both use very different management practices, but both provide safe high quality food. If the farmers that I have visited for the past 15 years choose to do their job by responsibly using antibiotics, gmo’s, r-Bst, cages, barns, etc,… I feel they should be able to.  I don’t ever want to be forced to pay more for food with a fancy label when I understand the safety of conventionally raised food and get to see it every day.

I am proud of agriculture today.  You should be too.  Share the real story. It’s time to speak up.