Tag Archives: where does food come from

American Farmers: Invisible Guests At The World’s Table

By: Chris Warren

I stopped by the grocery store early Sunday morning when it was quiet and the place had more employees than customers. It’s nice to park near the door and get in before the post-church/pre-football game shopping madness sets in. As if it were a scene from a Hollywood movie, the automatic doors opening before me revealed an awe-inspiring, far reaching display of fresh fruits, vegetables, cheese, and baked goods. For a few moments I had to stop and take in the wonder of the amazing bounty laid out before me.

To encourage sales and impress customers, retailers purposely set their stores up to create that “oh, wow!” feeling when walking in the door. I had shopped at this particular store for many years and entered through that same door probably over a thousand times but for some reason never noticed the carefully staged displays. This time, maybe because no one was in the place, it hit me: There was more food in this building than there is in some entire third world cities. I am blessed to live in a time and place of plenty.

I love to ride my motorcycle out in the country. The twisty roads, the fresh smell in the air. The free feeling of the open sky above and the pavement slipping beneath me is a rush like no other. I open up my BMW’s 1200 cubic centimeter in-line four cylinder engine and the world of crazy melts away and I get a feeling of relaxation that happens only when I’m rolling through nature.

Very few people give much thought to where their food really comes from. They just go to the store and everything is magically there. I might not be very aware either had I not seen for myself the hundreds of miles farms and fields going past my motorcycle. I can leave my home and ride for literally days acres several states and see nothing but crops growing. In my birth state of Illinois, 80% of the land is farms. Most Illinois citizens are surprised to hear this, probably because over half of them are squished into Chicago and five suburban “collar counties”. If they bothered to drift out of the strip mall-and-Starbucks district, they too would be amazed at how much food is produced less than half a day’s drive away.

Graphic courtesy Illinois Dept. of Agriculture ©

The United States has 1.44 million square miles of farmland; that’s over a third of the entire land mass of Europe. Without American farmers, the world goes hungry. Farmers are almost invisible because there are so few of them and they live and work far from where what they grow will be consumed. They toil in anonymity, never really knowing exactly who is at the other end of the chain or the global reach of their work.

Farming is one of the few, and perhaps only, professions you literally have to be born into. No one decides at age 35 to switch careers and become a serious first time farmer. If you did not grow up around farms or have an elder teach you from an early age, you’ll probably never pick it up later in life. Some universities offer a major in farming, but most students who pursue a degree in agriculture already have a decade or more of practical experience on their resume well before their college years and are unequivocal about what they want to do with their lives. The work is famously grinding and low paying; those not raised in the culture and acclimated to it will not understand the reward has nothing to do with money or a comfortable lifestyle.

I am envious of farmers. They live a quiet, honest country life that I wish for myself. I know that the reality is much different than the wish. The plight of the farmer has not changed much over many generations. There are good years and bad years. The good years don’t come easy, and there are just enough of them to stay ahead. Technology has made farming safer and more efficient, but no matter how far technology advances, it will always be  about the land.

Assumption, Illinois. Photo courtesy Illinois Farm Bureau, Ken Kashian
Assumption, Illinois. Photo courtesy Illinois Farm Bureau, Ken Kashian ©

I had a professor in college who was also a farmer. I don’t know how he found time to teach a class and run a farm, but somehow he pulled it off. He had a manner about him that was more country gentleman than professor. He injected his easygoing style into a seriously boring course (Tests and Measures for Education). He wore jeans and flannel shirts to class. Every lesson included some comparison to farming, and it was usually funny. To this day I can hear him admonishing us, “Farmers work in the soil! Dirt is what is in your vacuum cleaner bag. Do not ever refer to soil as dirt!” Farmers revere the land and hold it sacred in a Zen-like way only they understand.  What I respected most about him was that he busted the stereotype that farmers were simple-minded hicks. This guy was intelligent and deep and I don’t believe he was the exception.

Later on the same day as my grocery store epiphany, I had to make a return trip for items I forgot. So much for getting in early and avoiding the crowds. The place was jammed, carts piled high with food going out the front door as fast as the trucks could deliver it in the back. Through the madness I took another moment to wonder if those stalks of corn on the display were the same ones I whizzed past on my motorcycle earlier in the summer. The bread, potatoes, strawberries, pretty much everything in the place began its life buried in humble soil tended by someone whose sole mission in life is to feed the world. The world in turn should have an appreciation for how it all comes together on their dinner plates. Whether it’s a lavish sit down holiday feast or simply chomping a donut in the car on the way to work, we should pause and give thanks to the unseen guests of honor at every meal.