A Dairy Farmer’s Take on Modern, Sustainable Agriculture - Food Dialogues

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A Dairy Farmer’s Take on Modern, Sustainable Agriculture


The American Food & Technology Innovation Summit was fantastically interesting. Everyone there was invested in the future of food – not just talking about it, but working in the industry. A wide range of people attended, including heads of research and development, new ingredient marketing specialists, and experts figuring out how to increase shelf life. Large companies like Dominos, Bacardi, Tyson, and PepsiCo were there along with small companies. Other countries were also represented – I personally talked to people from 12 different ones.

When I gave my talk about what sustainable, modern farms are like today, I received several questions and positive feedback. My discussions with people continued the rest of the conference. For instance, people would talk about what foods they loved, how surprised they were at some of the modern farming practices, or how they had relatives who once farmed.

Since I love talking about farming and food, I could not have asked for a better experience. I felt like I knew a lot of people at the conference by the time we listened to a speaker who didn’t have the best opinion of modern farming.

He characterized farmers as people who were growing crops they weren’t proud of, who were barely able to make ends meet, and who were involved in an industry that was unsustainable.

I watched the people around me shifting in their seats.

He hadn’t been to my talk, so he didn’t know there were any farmers in the audience. When it was time for questions, I said that, as a farmer, I didn’t agree with his characterization of us.

He said that he respected farmers, that all food comes from farmers, and knows that farming is blood, sweat, and tears; but that he just wants to make good decisions for him and the planet.

Fair enough – but farmers do too.

A later speaker who was talking about an alternative product to complement existing agriculture said that farming wasn’t what “Carla showed us yesterday, which is what farming should be.”

Even though I did say it, I wish I’d made the point more clearly that all farmers are doing their best to care for their animals, land, and water. From my perspective, farmers need to make sure to do this more than anyone else. We need land to produce. We need water to sustain our farms.  We need animals to be healthy. As a result, we do everything we can.

My family has been farming – not just as an occupation – on this same dirt for 136 years. There are family farms covering the nation. We’re all personally, financially, and emotionally invested in our farms.

That speaker ended with a quote by John Jeavons, a home gardening proponent: “Man, despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication and many accomplishments, owes the fact of his existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.”

We’d all like to have an alternative to this fact – especially when it doesn’t rain. I’m all for choice and invention, and I applaud all the efforts of people in the food industry. But the marketing model doesn’t need to be good vs. evil. Farmers are doing their best with what they have in order to produce food for themselves and other peoples’ families. That includes using all of the technology available – GMO crops, precision feeding, manure management, and the best animal care. We’re interested in producing sustainably, and we are proud of it.

On the way out, a conference attendee caught me. He was a little older than I am, had a European accent, and wore a smart suit.

“You like GMOs?” he asked.

“Yes, I do,” I said, prepared for a lengthy discussion about it.

“Ahh! Fantastic – finally!” he said, wrapping me up in a giant hug. He left without another word.

Thank you so much to the American Food & Technology Innovation Summit for asking me to speak. I greatly appreciate your efforts, your professionalism, and your mission. Now, it’s back to the farm to check the rain gauge.

Carla and her husband, Kris, are the sole owners of Evergreen Dairy in St. Johns, Michigan.  She is the sixth generation to be farming on her family’s farm where they milk 400 cows, and grow crops to feed their cattle on 850 acres of corn, alfalfa and pasture.

To learn more about Carla’s farm, you can go to:

Facebook – www.facebook.com/truthordairy
Twitter – @carlashelley