Honor our food — and those who grow it — this holiday season

For years I have heard from friends familiar with U.S. agriculture about the many benefits of eating locally or regionally grown food, and about the importance of supporting the people who grow and raise these products.

As I listened to them and learned more about the local food movement, bit by bit, what they told me made sense, and my wife and I turned our friends’ words into action.

We started buying our beef and pork from small farmers here in the Chippewa Valley where we live. We got to know the farmers who raise the animals we eat, to learn how the meat is drug-free, and how the animals are fed healthy diets and treated humanely. A year later we decided to become members of a CSA (Community Supported Agricultural Organization) through which we buy the majority of our vegetables during the summer and fall months.

My wife and I were happy with our decision to eat more locally, happy to eat healthy food, and happy to support local farmers who work so hard just to keep their heads above water and carry on the lifestyle they hold so dear. And with grocery store food prices skyrocketing, we know that eating this way can stabilize our food budgets and act as an investment in our values.

However, I didn’t really understand the scope of corporate farming in the United States and its effects on farmers and consumers until the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on a supply chain that relied so much on a system in which some giant agribusiness focused on energy, whether it be the meat processing industry, the dairy sector, or agricultural equipment manufacturers.

Suddenly, amid virus outbreaks and stay-at-home policies, the links of that chain fell apart. The meat has not been processed. Store shelves were bare. Dairy farmers got rid of milk. The accumulation of equipment made it difficult to plant and harvest crops.

Jim and Alison Deutch remember well the hardships they and other farmers faced when the pandemic hit. The couple raise pigs and chickens and operate an organic dairy on their 160-acre farm south of Osseo. When much of their market dried up in the early days of the pandemic, they worked to sell more of their products directly to consumers.

Deutsches are part of a growing number of farmers in west central Wisconsin and in the rest of the state who operate small and medium-sized farms that increasingly sell produce directly to restaurants, stores and consumers. While these efforts are expanding as more people worry about the source of their food, and the conditions for raising farm animals, Deutsch and others acknowledge the challenges they face from so-called “big farming” and the pressures to find efficiencies through ever-larger operations or go out of business.

“People like us are doing what they can to get into new markets, to find ways to reach more customers,” Jim said one past morning on his farm. But policies now favor the big operators. They are not designed for farmers who work our size.”

“It’s about so much more than that.”

When Jennifer Falk and a group of fellow members of the Oneida Nation began planting sorghum a few years ago, co-farming was the furthest idea from their minds. They simply wanted to try to breed a high-protein type of corn, a food their ancestors had grown.

Their effort was first and foremost a way to provide their tribe with healthy food. Numerous studies show that the Oneida Nation and other Native American tribes have much higher levels of diabetes, heart disease, and other problems that often lead to chronic health problems and early deaths. Tribal people also experience poverty at higher rates than other ethnic groups in the United States, making access to healthy food and quality medical care problematic for many.

In October, as communications specialist for the Wisconsin Farmers’ Union, I visited Falk and several other Oneida tribesmen as they gathered sorghum and neatly tied the cobs together in large bundles, then hung them from the rafters of a stockyard. After the cobs were sufficiently dry, they would be processed in a variety of ways and distributed among the tribesmen.

While those present at this gathering took turns jumping and tying the cobs, they chatted amiably, welcoming their old friends and meeting new ones. The mom showed off her new baby, bursting with joyful smiles and congratulations. People partook of an array of delicious local foods made partly from sorghum. Many of the Native Americans who attended the event described the pride they felt in being part of the cultivation of a crop raised by their ancestors.

Falk spoke to person after person, often exchanging hugs. She introduced me to one person after another. At one point, she stepped back to take in the scene around her, dozens of people enjoying each other’s company.

“This is about sorghum, but it’s about so much more than that,” Falk said. “It’s about community, about bringing people together. And it’s about reclaiming a piece of our past.”

Thanks wishes

My wife and I can’t say that our small attempt at local food has any goals that are nearly so important. We are simply trying to do our part, in our own small way, to eat healthy food while supporting the people who work so hard to grow or produce it.

But as I sit down to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, I will not only be grateful for enjoying the day with family and friends, I will also be grateful for the people who grew that food, who raised those animals and the animals who gave their lives so I could sustain mine.

I wish there was a world where more people had access to healthy, high-quality food. I wish for an agrarian system that prioritizes healthy food over profits. I hope Jim, Alison Deutch, and other small family farmers find a way to stay in business. It is my hope that Jennifer Falk and her colleagues at Oneida Nation find ways to continue to expand their sorghum initiative and that it leads to good health, more income, and happiness for her people.

I will hope for systemic changes that allow all of this to happen. And I would be grateful to those friends who taught me the importance of local food, and how it really does more than any of us but benefits all of us, if only we were able to realize it.

This story first appeared in the Wisconsin Examiner, a publication in the States Newsroom and sister site to the Minnesota Reformer.

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