Diverse, Concentrated–Big Ag, New Ag?

The Progressive Farmer magazine’s February issue resembles most mid-winter issues of most U.S. farm magazines. It features stories on how to grow more corn, how to whip soybean aphids, and how to “Drain Water in the Hydraulics.”

Interspersed between these tried-and-true farm favorites, however, are three stories that mark just how incredibly diverse our farm and ranches—and our farmers and ranchers—have become in the last decade even as our ag economy continues to concentrate assets and disperse, or shed, people.

First (in my Illinois edition) is a two-page spread on the “Secrets of New Zealand Grass Farming.” Ten years ago no mainline American farm magazine would have sent an editor to New Zealand to learn, then write, about, well, grass.

But grass, as the PF story relates in both great words and great pictures (by staff editor Jim Patrico, a highly honored writer and photographer), is what New Zealand farmers do exceptionally well.

The story features farmer Jack Brice who, each year, raises “550 crossbred bulls,” 1,000 market lambs and “500 purebred Poll Dorset sheep” on “about 400 acres of grass,” using “no nitrogen fertilizer” whatsoever.

Wow. How, right? (Links at http://live-farm-and-food-file.pantheonsite.io/in-the-news/.)

A couple of pages later, another “not-even-10-years-ago” story opens with a photo of a guy seated on a tall stool in a pasture wearing a golf shirt, suspenders, blue jeans and a chicken. It’s Joel Salatin, a “controversial farmer, author and speaker,” who is the—not “a,” “the”—patron saint of organic red meat and poultry production in America’s no-longer-new, new food movement.

Thirty years ago, Salatin gave up journalism (hmm) to farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. When he and spouse Theresa began, they owned “a $50 car,” lived in “his parents’ attic” and “subsisted on $300 per month.” That first year their work on 500 rented and owned acres “grossed $20,000.”

Enter the chicken; make that the pasture-raised, “farm-to-table” chicken.

“If you grow chicken for Tyson,” Salatin explains to writer Deborah R. Huso, “you need a $400,000 chicken house. We had 280 chickens and needed a $100 portable shelter.”

So they built the portable shelter. Then another. And, soon, another and another.

Today, as you can read, Polyface Farm (“the farm of many faces”) has 100 broiler chicken shelters.

It also has “1,000 head of cattle, 800 hogs, 25,000 broilers, 4,000 laying hens and 2,000 turkeys.” The now-2,000 acre farm grosses “$2 million a year,” and is home to four generations of Salatins. By any measure, Polyface is an enormous success.

Thirty of so pages later, the magazine’s cover story, “American’s 2015 Best Young Farmers & Ranchers” takes over (for 17 pages) to showcase more success.

The big feature features five Gen X operators who collectively farm and ranch 29,000 acres, 3,500 head of cattle and more than 500,000 bu. of grain storage while raising crops and livestock as varied as kidney beans, cotton, quail, corn, quarter horses, popcorn, soybeans and registered Brangus cattle.

These farmers and ranchers are highly specialized, mechanized and energized. And bold; most started out with little to nothing and took advantage of unique, often risky, opportunities offered by neighbors, family or friends.

Also, while the Big Ag boys couldn’t be more different from New Ag’s Salatin and Brice, all hold common threads. Each is very specialized in their diversity and all are highly committed: Brice to his fabulous grass; Salatin to his systematic organics; the young guns to their intense asset management.

Those similarities hold differences, too. Salatin and Brice, while managers, “farm” more; the Fab Five, while full-time farmers and ranchers, “manage” more. All, however, are still farmers and ranchers.

Taken together—in, say, one issue of one magazine—these stark contrasts now blend to shape food’s future. Will both thrive in the coming 10 years as they have in the last 10? Hopefully, Progressive Farmer will let us know.

© 2015 ag comm

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